Below is an exchange between Ammiel Alcalay and Semezdin Mehmedinovic (Bosnian poet, author of Sarajevo Blues; 1998, City Lights; Nine Alexandrias, 2003, City Lights; and numerous other books in Bosnian) about Kent Johnson's Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz; the text was translated from Bosnian into English by Ammiel Alcalay.
Mon. 08 August
I got the copy of Kent's book that you sent today? I read it immediately and was really struck by it: beautiful, humorous, very painful and intelligent. I haven't read anything this fresh in a long time: my hope would be that this poetry has some kind of serious effect or, barring that, that it at least bring back some primary faith in poetry. I'm happy that you're in some way present here; I had the feeling while I was reading the book that it was the direct result of your public work over the past ten years...
i'm going to ask you if I can quote you on this because there is a controversy raging on various poetry blogs now about kent's book and what you wrote here would be perfect...
That would make me very happy - by all means quote me if you think that it is well enough articulated; I think that Kent's book needs to be talked about as much as possible precisely because it is unsettling; it's unsettling to the less talented and less courageous (and that, unfortunately, includes about 90% of the poets in America). I was reading somewhere, that one of the mindless assertions (but today
typical) written on one of the blogs is that the war in Iraq (the one Kent's book is dealing with) is 'old news.' Well, that's a terrifying phrase, not just because the war is ongoing and even more horrendous measures are in preparation but because, let's say, Hiroshima then is old news and poetry shouldn't try to deal with it, as if poetry were some prime time TV show. What must be most unnerving for poets here is the freshness of Kent's book on all levels - on the formal and every other level, because it's alive, it's speaking of reality, while most American poets would still rather go on writing about anything and everything except themselves in the world they're in, and certainly not about things that are so unsettling; what's more, they've been writing about nothing so long, that they're not in any position to write about anything concrete; the freshness of Kent's book completely overshadows most of what's being written now and it doesn't at all surprise me that there would be negative reactions among "the poets." But this actually really saddens me. Because the book opens a dialog with serious problems that all of us on this planet are living with, while a reaction like that makes it seem as if all that is at stake here is cleansing relations between poets and their conscience. But now I'm telling you things you know a lot more about and better than I do. So, that's it, I just want to say that I'm not at all indifferent to what is going on, that the whole thing hits very close to home for me.