Sunday, November 04, 2007

a hastily written excursus on "I Once Met"

I once met Kent Johnson's I Once Met. It was last night, shortly after I met its author. I found it to be (as I've said) both tender and funny. Why, though, do I also find it interesting?

1) There's a naturalness to it (which predominated in the reading), the sense of "here are some little stories from my life." Then there's the artifice of it (impossible to ignore in reading the full text): not only the question of the truth of any given anecdote (ultimately not a very interesting question to try to answer--though its presence as a question is, I think, interesting), but also the repeating formal structure, borrowed from Joe Brainard's I Remember, the various impossible or highly unlikely events, and the goofy diction of some of Johnson's sentences (his use of the poetic "O," for instance). These are like casual little Verfremdungseffekts, reminding the reader of the literary status of the text--though the naturalness persists. The work never settles on one side or the other.

2) I don't think I've seen an explicit consideration of "the meeting" as unit of experience before.

Why is it important "to have met?" So many people, myself included, talk about it.

There are, of course, the status-granting aspects: I can tell people, for instance, that I've met Wallace Shawn, and they will be impressed (I found him to be friendly, excited that I'd been involved in performances of some of his more obscure plays, amusing, a bit awkward, and very like Wallace Shawn). In any case, it feels good to me to have met someone "famous" and thus "inaccessible."

Within an art scene, of course, meeting a more-or-less established artist can be seen as a way to "make connections," advance one's own career.

Then there's the notion that an artist whose work you know seems like a kindred spirit, or just nice person to talk to, and that the experience of meeting them might be mutually pleasurable (this is all kind of obvious and boring, isn't it?).

(At times, I've attempted to meet more established poets based on this kind of motivation. Sometimes it works, and we talk about our mutual interest in some other poet, or composer, or sociopolitical problem or movement. I know it's working if the person I'm meeting doesn't immediately ask me what my last name is. When they do, it seems like the situation is being placed back in the "status" category, which I'm probably trying to avoid--as if they're asking, "should I know your name?". This is all very slippery, since they might be asking out of a genuine interest in discovering new writing, and not out of an assumption that what's happening is an instance of "scene-politics.")

(I once met Lyn Hejinian. She had given a reading at UC San Diego; she read "Happily" and parts of A Border Comedy. I told her how much I appreciated the way she was able, in this recent work, to fuse philosophy and poetry without producing a haphazard philosophy or a poetry with philosophical "icing." She asked, "are you in Michael [Davidson]'s class?" I answered that I wasn't a student at all, just a poet and enthusiastic reader, and she said "Oh, great! A real person!")

Then there's the meeting with the person you've seen around for a long time, or have even been in the room with frequently, but have never really begun to know. This is an interesting one.

Some of the most amazing people I've met are vast repositories of stories of the amazing people they've met (some famous in whatever sphere, some who almost no-one would have heard of). These people most often seem to come out of activist contexts (though some artistic ones as well); their meetings haven't been a matter of personal advancement, because their lives simply are their histories of relations with others, organized collectively around common projects.

The meetings in I Once Met seem variously to involve these motivations and more, and often many at once. At times the repeated formal marker "I once met" doesn't quite work. In one instance of this, Johnson writes that he "once met" David Bromige, shortly after hanging out with him in Sebastopol. This gives a slight shift to the meaning of the phrase; it could now mean something more like "I once met so-and-so for coffee." In one of the most moving sections of the book, Johnson says that he has not met one of his sons, a claim which a tiny bit of research shows to be literally untrue--unless, again, the meaning of the phrase has shifted: they have not yet come to know each other in the right way, never connected in the way Johnson wishes they had and hopes, someday, they will.

I'm trying, in too many words, to get to the observation that, by using the phrase "I once met" in a formally consistent way, Johnson opens to the reader's view this range of meanings a meeting can have between people, and in different social contexts. As in all of his best writing about the social worlds of poetry itself, he here avoids reducing the interactions taking place in those worlds to one underlying motivation or other. By choosing a more culturally loaded marker than, for instance, Joe Brainard's "I remember," Johnson points explicitly to a complex of behaviors that, in other works, he might satirize with a much sharper tooth. Here, however, the real uncertainty about what is going on "beneath the surface" of these meetings and the recounting of them (and their frequent fictionalizations) is held in suspension, delicately--and it's the attention to that fragile moment, in which the situation could turn out one way or another, or turn out to mean one thing or another, that gives the book its valuable humanness. The fact that the recurring phrase sometimes loses its meaning almost entirely can be read as an analogy for the superficial layer of these encounters--and thus a parodic critique--while, through the very fracturing of this superficiality, revealing the richer possibilities layered and mixed up underneath. In this sense, it's a call for patience, consideration, rethinking, care.



  • At November 4, 2007 at 9:31 PM, Blogger Andy Gricevich said…

    Two notes:

    1) This warm review does, of course, skip over the relatively infrequent instances of chilly character assassination in the book (particularly the portraits of Bernstein, Perelman and Watten).

    2) The Wikipedia article on Brecht's V-Effekt is just as oversimplified and ultimately wrongheaded as the accounts of it fed to most theater and literature students, most of whom will probably never go into enough depth with BB to figure it out. Alas, more bullshit about Brecht.

  • At November 5, 2007 at 6:37 PM, Blogger Annandale Dream Gazette said…

    You must get a kick out of the fact that you met Kent when he was reading about who he met. Maybe you'll be in the continued series! I'm troubled by the character assasinations as well, but at least that's not the bulk of it (as I felt epigrammatis or whatever that was called, was, for the most part, from what I can recall anyway).

    Enjoy your comments over at sillimanville.
    Lynn Behrendt

  • At November 6, 2007 at 1:34 AM, Blogger Andy Gricevich said…

    Thanks, Lynn!

    The comments fandom is mutual.

    Incidentally, some of the bits that come off as sarcastic in the text don't seem that way when he reads them. The reverse is also true.

    I love the Dream Gazette. I've been meaning to send you a dream or two, if I ever get around to writing them down.

    all the best,


  • At November 9, 2007 at 2:31 PM, Blogger Kirby Olson said…

    I thought his piece worked well, too.

    I didn't know why it was considered sexist to tomahawk Anne Waldman for not showing up to read for 300 dollars. 300 dollars isn't even lunch for the people who live higher on the food chain.

    It seemed to me that the premise of the piece (as I Remember) was based on Aristotle's notion of recognition.

    That's an undernoted concept.

    I didn't care that he slaughtered Langpo people. I didn't even notice.

    I thought it was funny when he whacked Whalen at the end. I've heard many bad stores about Whalen. I think it's fun that poets who write about sweetness and light are criminal imbeciles in person.

    That's just normal. It's the difference between the face and the reality. and we all have to put a good face on things.

  • At November 10, 2007 at 11:52 AM, Blogger Andy Gricevich said…

    Kirby, I didn't really see any problem with sexism here either. I think Waldman is being poked at (rather gently, I'd say) for her professional or celebrity status (a favorite target of Kent's).

    I actually see very little that's harsh in the book. Especially when he read it aloud, the Whalen bit seemed, if anything, respectful (though I think your assessment of "sweetness and light" writers--especially a high number of white California Buddhists--is pretty accurate). And the "Langpos" aren't really "slaughtered;" a few of them are made to look mean, snotty or vain (or a bit more like the 7 dwarves than they actually, I'd guess, are).

    (Kent's reading of the Perelman bit made BP sound like a bit of a jerk, which surprised me--BP seemed like a really nice guy when I met him, and I assumed he and KJ would like each other as satirists... plus BP has been about as critical of his fellow LangPos as KJ has, at least in recent years).

  • At November 16, 2007 at 12:46 PM, Blogger Kirby Olson said…

    In general I wouldn't worry too much about most attacks. Perelman, or whomever, all deserve them (I've met Perelman and he seems fine to me).

    There's always jostling when it comes to king of the hill type situations, and I find it funny and asinine in the best meaning of both words.


Post a Comment

<< Home