Maintenant #72 – Johannes Göransson
An interview with Johannes Göransson by SJ Fowler.
A Swede who is an American, an American who is a Swede. The irrelevancy of the nationhood of Johannes Göransson is never more obvious than in the multifarious and rapacious nature of his work – it calls on traditions too intertwined, too psychological and introverted to make its genesis of much interest. What is of interest is his industry as a translator. As well as being one of the most interesting and acerbic poets and educators currently at large in the US, he is also a vital conduit to the breadth and brilliance of contemporary Swedish poetry. For Maintenant in it’s 72nd guise, the excellent Johannes Göransson
3:AM: Certainly the migration of European poets to the US is not a new phenomenon, but for a Swedish poet there seems to be few precursors. Were you led to emigrate by a teaching position or by your own desire?
Johannes Göransson: I emigrated to the US when I was 13. I didn’t have a choice. It was totally against my desire. I came with my family. I started writing poetry at roughly the same time. For me poetry is inextricably bound up in issues of immigration, homelessness, translation.
3:AM: Most Swedish poets have built their reputation in Sweden and remained. You seem to be doing so in reverse, your repute growing sizeably in the US before Sweden…
JG: I don’t think I have much of a reputation in the US, but yes it is probably bigger than it is in Sweden.
3:AM: Did you publish a lot of poetry in Sweden before you left? Is there an audience of your work in Sweden now?
JG: No, I had barely started to write when my family moved to the US. I’ve published Swedish translations and some interlingual poems in a few places, but mostly I publish in American journals and with American presses. It is true that I have found a lot of writers with aesthetic ideas in common with me in Sweden. And in many ways I feel as in tune with them as I do with most American poetry. But then I feel very in tune with Korean poet Kim Hyesoon and I’ve never even been to Korea.
3:AM: Do you think you will return to Sweden eventually?
JG: My wife Joyelle really wants to move there. A lot of the guys I grew up with now work in this Alfa Laval factory in Lund. Joyelle wants to work in the Alfa Laval cafeteria.
3:AM: Your are an accomplished translator of contemporary Swedish and Finnish poetry, you play the vital role in getting some considerable talents an audience in English. Do you see your work as a translator as a personal interest or a necessary work?
JG: I started translating stuff as soon as I came to the US. At first it was perhaps translating pop songs to explain to my friends what I was listening to. And then later, when I started reading contemporary Swedish poetry it felt just as natural to translate it in order to show my friends what I was reading. Then I started publishing them to show more people what I thought was some interesting stuff being written in Sweden. Of course I was reacting in many ways to that reading in my own work, so you can say that this was all very personal. I’m not sure what you mean by “necessary.” But to me it feels both personal and necessary.
But actually I became interested in translation long before I moved to the US. Growing up in a “minor” country like Sweden, we were always reading, listening and watching shows, texts and music from England and the US, so everybody grows up translating. I remember trying to decipher songs by groups like The Cure, Depeche Mode and New Order when I was like in 5th grade. I remember sitting on the bus and thinking through these curious mistranslations as I was heading home from school where I had learned a more rudimentary form of English and translation… Of course in pop music it’s hard to make out the words to begin with, which helps foreground the instability of the translation process.
It’s that instability that I play with a lot in my own writing. My third book, Pilot, for example is generated from translations and interlingual infections of one sort or another (for example of birthing manuals and Swedish new wave songs from the early 80s and the poems “themselves”). (You can get an e-copy of the book here). But mostly the translation exists as a slippage, an infection in the text.
3:AM: Do you think translations are undervalued in America?
JG: For a long time (since really the end of the mythical 1960s) American poets and publishers (whether “experimental” or “mainstream”) seemed pretty indifferent to translation, but that seems to be changing. A lot of poets and presses right now seem very interested in what’s going on in the rest of the world, as well as the problematics of translation as an act.
But it was obviously not just indifference. That’s facetious of me. Translation is a potentially troubling agent in an establishment like American poetry. Not only can it bring in poets and poems from other literatures, thus proving the relative merit of American standards and tastes (revealing them to be “tastes” bound by context), but it can also potentially generate an incredible excess: too many authors, too many poems, too many traditions, and, most importantly, too many *versions* of poems. It becomes “too much” to master, to much to organize into hierarchies.
When you bring translations into the discussion, people tend to get suspicious: How do we know that the poem is good in the original? That it’s a “faithful” translation? That we’re not being fooled? How can we master all this excess? You can’t of course. And that’s the beauty of it. You’re just going to have to deal with it without those hierarchical filters.
It seems natural that American poets and poetry readers should become interested in works in translation at a time when – due to various changes in publishing and dissemination mostly – American poetry has become very anarchic. Critics and academics always complain: there is too much of it! How do we know what’s good? They invent hierarchies of “innovative” poetry so they don’t have to dive into the excess, but in so doing they’re not only compromising their academic credibility (how can you be an “expert” on American poetry and have never read any of these wild, small Internet journals or participated in any of its sadistic blog discussions?) but they’re also losing out on a poetry scene that is constantly mutating and getting infected and multiplying and changing. Most of all they’re losing out on some really interesting poetry. But losing is of course what it’s all about.
3:AM: Do you enjoy teaching in America?
JG: I love teaching. It’s a lot of fun. And it’s a job that makes me think, allows me to think. Before going back to grad school I worked as a landscaper. I was exhausted all the time and I spent hours and hours on mindless tasks. Yes, I like teaching.
3:AM: What is your opinion of contemporary Swedish poetry? It seems to be extremely wide ranging, whereby poets following the formal lineage of someone like Transtromer gain an audience next to unusually popular innovative poets like Ulf Karl Olov Nilsson.
JG: The Swedish literary scene does seem really interesting right now. Perhaps an indication of how interesting is in the instability of the terms you’ve chosen. Tranströmer is in some way a formalist (at least early on he wrote in form) but he’s also a mystic with roots in surrealism and the occult. He is of course also incredibly popular in the “national treasure” kind of way, a way that mostly obscures the weirdnesses of his writing. Nilsson maybe seems like the “experimentalist” in this binary, but he is of course also a formalist, something that his incredible performances bring out. And, unlike the common wisdom in the US, “experimental” poets in Sweden can also be quite popular (many of them write for daily papers, something totally unheard of in the US).
As you suggest, there is a pretty wide proliferation of poetries, and Swedes on the whole have a very international approach to poetry. Most of them seem to see themselves as fairly provincial – and therefore must read up on what’s going on in the rest of the world. I think that helps create a dynamic scene. However, until recently, Swedish poetry has not had much in the way of a small press culture, like the one we have in the US. But that’s developing now. The Acker-esque, queer online journal Läcker for example is one of my favorite journals.
The problem with this internationalism is that sometimes it seems that what is for example American becomes immediately more important than the Swedish. The cozy globalism of cosmopolitanism of course obscure that there is real economic power at work, even in the world of poetry.
But, yes, there are tons of Swedish poets whose work I like, many of them young-ish: Aase Berg, Johan Jönson, Sara Stridsberg, Sara Hallström. I just started reading Leif Holmstrand’s poems. I’m also reading the first novels of reading Aylin Bloch Boynukisa and Sara Tuss Efrik (both as of yet unpublished). And tons more, many of them only published in journals or by small presses. One of my favorite writers right now is Stina Kajaso who writes this blog. When I read things like that it makes a term like “innovative literature” feel so hygienic and dull.
3:AM: You often work in prose poems, blocks of texts that seem to be craving out aberrant, at times playful, surreal chunks of image led poetry. Do you enjoy maintaining the epithets of a narrative throughout your work so that in its detail and language it can be aggressive and innovative?
JG: I like your suggestion that the “aggression” and “surreal” are at odds with the “narrative.” It certainly feels at odds to me when I write it. Many of my books are “novels” but they are hardly written with a narrative arch in mind. I write on a very much more micro-level: I have a sensation or sentence in mind and then I try to exhaust everything using that kernel (and with everything I primarily mean myself, but also our entire culture, it’s a futile idea no doubt).
And yes, there are a lot of “images” in my books, though often they are involved in a kind of near-montage-like series that do not on the whole come together (like the synthesis of Eisensteinian montage) but tends to keep moving until I and the poem are exhausted and we stop. Images do tend to be considered kitsch in American experimental poetics, a poetics that tends to be skeptical of the kind of absorptive, spectacular quality of images. But I’m very much interested in the spectacular and absorptive, in affect and poetic effects, in the visceral and fantastic.
I’m not all that interested in “innovative” poetry. To me it usually denotes a kind of high culture, high taste label. And also a sense of linear futurity that I think is not only boring but oppressive. I’m far more interested in the degraded and anachronistic, the trashy and the melancholic. Even “the poetic.”
But it’s true that my poems are very “aggressive” or violent, Joyelle wrote an article on the “ambient violence” in my work a while back. That seems true. In my mind art is very violent, but that’s not separate from the narrative. It’s in the very conflict within the artwork. I’m always at odds with myself, with my books.
For another take on the ambient violence, check out these teenagers doing “death drops”. This is pretty much the greatest thing I’ve seen in a long time.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
SJ Fowler is the author of two poetry collections, Red Museum (Knives Forks and Spoons Press 2011) and Fights (Veer books 2011). He is the UK poetry editor of Lyrikline and 3:AM. He is a full time employee of the British Museum and a postgraduate student at the Contemporary Centre for Poetic Research, University of London.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, August 28th, 2011.