The Araki Yasusada Hoax
Brief History of a Poetry Hoax
In the 1990s, community college instructor Kent Johnson published poetry, claiming it was written by a Hiroshima survivor. Then it was discovered that no such poet ever existed.
David Dwyer as a Little Old Lady
In the 1970s, poet David Dwyer created a character, an older woman named Ariana Olisvos. He wondered if his characterization was convincing, so he sent some of his poems to a feminist magazine Aphra that was calling for poems by older women. Aphra published two of his poems, thinking they were the work of Ariana Olisvos, an older woman.
When the editors of Aphra found out that they had been deceived, they were furious and demanded Dwyer return the $100 payment. Dwyer had the last laugh, however, when in 1980, his collection titled Ariana Olisvos: Her Last Works and Days, won the prestigious Juniper Prize.
About the incident of deceit, Dwyer explains:
On the one hand, I was genuinely trying to create this persona, to really create a living voice. On the other hand, I did take advantage of people's kindness. Then again, I was very young. And there's a kind of arrogance that grips artists, where you're willing to take advantage of others. It was quite a few years before I got rid of that character.
Dwyer's lesson learned demonstrates that he realizes the bankruptcy of trying to publish under false pretenses. Another poet Kent Johnson has never learned that lesson.
The Araki Yasusada Hoax
In the July/August 1996 issue of The American Poetry Review, a special insert appeared supposedly containing the poetry of Hiroshima survivor Araki Yasusada. The title of the manuscript was "Doubled Flowering: From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada."
Various other poems by this same poet had been appearing in other recognized journals throughout the early 1990s such as Aerial, Conjunctions, First Intensity, and Grand Street; even the British poetry journal, Stand, published them.
The manuscript was elaborately footnoted, and it also contained biographical information about the poet. He had attended Hiroshima University between 1925 and 1928; he had been influenced by Roland Barthes, studying his works in 1967, and his writing group had studied deeply the works of Paul Celan during the World War II.
However, all of this information is false: Hiroshima University was not founded until 1949, the works of Roland Barthes were not published until 1970, and Paul Celan's work was not published until 1952.
Editors began hearing noises that Araki Yasusada might not exist. Emily Nussbaum's article in Lingua Franca "Turning Japanese: The Hiroshima Poetry Hoax" appeared in November 1996.
Arthur Vogelsang of The American Poetry Review, the editor who was snookered by the project, allegedly called it a "criminal act." Then Wesleyan University Press, which had intended to publish a collection of Yasusada's poems, backed out of the project.
Evidence That the Hoaxer is Johnson
The person at the center of this literary hoax is Kent Johnson, who to this day, still denies being the sole author of the Yasusada manuscripts. But as Marjorie Perloff put it: " . . . when The American Poetry Review and Stand . . . demanded the return of their author's payment, it was to Kent Johnson they addressed their letters."
According to Emily Nussbaum, Johnson published several poems titled "From the Daybrook of Oshimora Okiyaki" in the journal Ironweed. The same poems appear in the Yasusada manuscript with only slight alterations. Also Yasusada, along with poets Wallace Stevens and Robert Creeley, is mentioned in Johnson's dissertation at Bowling Green University, titled "Strategies of Saying." Even the dissertation's title is a hint that Johnson is a likely candidate to try to pull off a stunt like this.
John Solt calls the poems presented by Johnson, "Japanized Crap." Solt, who is a professor of Japanese culture at Amherst College, explains that this kind of material "plays into the American idea of what is interesting about Japanese culture—Zen, haiku, anything seen as exotic—and gets it all wrong, adding Western humor and irony." A line such as "obediently bowing" reveals a Western misunderstanding: "[b]owing is not seen as subservient in Japan. It's a form of greeting," explains Solt.
Perhaps the most damning evidence that Johnson is, in fact, the creator of Yasusada and his manuscripts was Johnson's continued attempts to get them published by Wesleyan by engaging in an ongoing correspondence. Emily Nussbaum explains:
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 'notebooks' manuscript, concerned about the ethical issues involved. A correspondence then commenced in which Kent Johnson offered to 'frame' the writing, stating that he had in fact written it. (emphasis added)
Johnson has claimed that "Yasusada" was the pseudonym of one of his roommates, "Tosa Motokiyu," which was also a pseudonym, who actually wrote the works, but unfortunately, Motokiyu like Yasusada had also died of cancer. So Johnson is the only voice left to speak for the supposed manuscripts of a Hiroshima survivor.
And though Johnson has changed his story a number of times, he still has not confessed to his part in any hoax. Instead, he concocts obstructions meant to resemble literary theories about "hyperauthorships" and "heteronymities."
It's simple: either you wrote it or you didn't
But the issue is much simpler than the obfuscations that Johnson portrays in order to cover his heinous and possibly illegal activity in trying to pass off a Hiroshima survivor's works as authentic. A true Hiroshima survivor would have access to imagery that will motivate thoughts and invoke feelings that a non-Hiroshima survivor can never have.
And if a non-Hiroshima survivor, even a Westerner, wants to try to imagine those thoughts and feelings, as Dwyer did in creating the elderly Ariana, he is perfectly within his rights to do so and to try to publish them, as long as he does not try to deceive the publisher and the public into thinking that those works were created by a true Hiroshima survivor.
Why is this not obvious to Kent Johnson? Could it be that the character flaw, which David Dwyer outgrow, still troubles Johnson? Or maybe it's even simpler than this; Arthur Vogelsang probably knows if there is a statute of limitations on this kind of criminal act.
- Marjorie Perloff's "In Search of the Authentic Other: The Poetry of Araki Yasusada"
- Emily Nussbaum's "Turning Japanese: The Hiroshima Poetry Hoax"
- Bill Freind's "Interview with Kent Johnson"
Ken Johnson reading
© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes