Johannes Göransson Interview
The “summer” of Johannes Göransson’s latest collection Summer is a poisoned paradise. Bullets sprout amongst the lilacs. Garbage rains from heaven. Rioters erupt from the underworld. Animals wear masks. The poet stares into the sun.
Written in the wake of personal tragedy and set against the backdrop of an apocalyptic Eden, Summer mixes mythology, autobiography, and pop music into a surreal meditation on grief and loss, climate change and extinction, art and debt. Göransson’s verse oscillates between English and Swedish. Language becomes infected, collapses, and resurrects into new forms.
“I have to write you a letter / about my body as if it were / split between foreign / words whispered by angels / and soldiers who march in / through the eye / of a needle I write my body / with the eye of a needle I write / when I’m sick with gravity / in summer in summer I’m sick”
As summer dissipated into autumn, I corresponded with Göransson. In our conversation below, we discuss translation, intertextuality, trauma, and how to combat literary elitism.
Summer is available from Tarpaulin Sky Press.
I want to ask about childhood, as it’s an important thread in the book. Can you recall when the urge to write poetry first struck you? Are there any poems you remember writing or reading in your youth that seeded your later work?
When I was 11-12 I started to really pay attention to the lyrics of pop songs. I was listening to bands like Depeche Mode, The Cure, Joy Division and, especially, the Swedish post-punk band Imperiet. Imperiet’s songs—which were written by Joakim Thåström—were probably the single biggest reason I started writing poetry. When I started to write poetry, I was in essence translating and playing around with Imperiet lyrics. It was through them I also started to read Bruno K. Öijer (a Beat-influenced hugely famous Swedish poet I’ve since published with Action Books), whose poetry is really in my poetry-DNA as well. A little later (early teens) I discovered my mom’s Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan records and then Allen Ginsberg, Rimbaud, García Lorca, the Danish poet Michael Strunge, etc.
Summer is an interlingual text peppered with Swedish words and phrases. When I was reading the book, the Swedish words disrupted the poems in unpredictable ways. I would try to decipher their meaning based on the context, but often I’d find my guesses were completely off when I looked up the translations. Trying to phonetically pronounce these words was a fun exercise and reminded me of poetry's sonic power. You describe the Swedish seeping into Summer as a “reverse wound,” your native language reasserting itself, flowing into rather than out of the poems. Being a bilingual writer, is there ever a tension between these two languages, or do they play nicely together? Have you noticed either language mutating into new forms as you work?
For me, perhaps the most important part of the interlingual dynamic is that it forced—and still does when I give readings—my Swedish mouth to pronounce English words and my English words to say Swedish words. I feel like the mouth moves differently—like there are different settings for the mouth—and when asked to use the wrong setting, it gives rise to a new rhythm. I’ve mostly in the past written in prose, but somehow this new rhythm felt lyrical to me. It’s counterintuitive because the lyric is supposed to be the most monoglossic genre, while prose (according to Bakhtin) can be heteroglossic.
Your description is very apt, letting the Swedish into the poem created a sonic mutation.
I can’t speak for other bilingual writers, but for me, my bilingualism has meant that I don’t ask language to be stable (because I know it isn’t) and I embrace the glitches. I think that’s true of all my books to some extent, but I really foregrounded it in Summer. Sometimes the relationship feels like a struggle and sometimes it’s more fluid, playful, sonic. The early drafts of the book were all sonic play.
I should add that this is not my first foray into translingual writing. About 15 years ago I published the book Pilot (Johann the Carousel Horse) with Fairytale Review, and it’s kind of a prequel to Summer. It was generated by glitchy self-translations.
Summer converses with many other writers—specifically there are tributes to Ann Jäderlund, Paul Andersson, Eva Kristina Olsson, Héctor Viel Temperley. A diverse array of other works weave their way in—Giovanni's Room, Antigone, the Persephone myth. What role does intertextuality play in your work? How did these particular writers find their way into Summer?
Yes, there are many artists in the book, in part because it’s a book about art-making, and about reading and looking, about being shaped by art and shaping art, about eating it up and spitting it out. These were writers I was reading while I was writing the book or, in the case of Paul Andersson, I wrote a phrase and then realized that I had taken it from his poetry, which I haven’t really read for 30 years but which made a profound impact on me as a teenager. So maybe I’m using “while I was writing” in a wide sense, as in I was always writing this poem. It was always writing me.
There’s a lot of pop music, just stuff I’m taking down from the radio like Orpheus in Cocteau’s movie, when he takes dictation from the angels. I was listening to Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room while driving my oldest daughter to Indianapolis for soccer and then I misheard “all the garbage of the Seine” as “all the garbage of the sun,” and I thought of my daughter Arachne who had died in Indianapolis and then I thought, “I’m like Giovanni, who lives in a room where all the garbage of the sun pours in”; the line, of course, reminded me of Kim Hyesoon’s All the Garbage of the World, Unite! (a book I published with Action Books, in Don Mee Choi’s translation); and then I remembered how my best friend’s Italian cousin called me “Giovannini” when we were kids; and I thought of that time I was standing by the Spanish Steps in Rome—where Paul Andersson lived as a junkie instead of writing poems—and saw the plaque for “Giovanni Keats.” I loved Keats as a teenager (I first read it in Swedish translation), and he’s definitely in Summer, maybe the model for the poisoned lyric. Poisoned with those sounds, what they make of the mouth. All of this is I suppose to say that you may be right that the intertextuality is a “weaving.” Or maybe it’s just the leftovers I’ve spit out, spit out as a poem.
You mentioned this idea of being poisoned by sound. Summer has plenty of toxins running through its veins. At the same time, it’s also filled with loads of bucolic, pastoral imagery of flowers and animals. These contrasting images play up the tension between the majesty and ruthlessness of nature. “I know what nature is / I own its evil flower.” The flower is beautiful to look at, but its poison can also kill you. I think it extends to writing—a poem can enlighten and eviscerate in equal measure.
Though the poem started out in summer, the “Summer” of this poem is not so much a season as a site of intensity, poisoned by the world. The “meadow” burns down (over and over), “all the garbage” leaks into the world, the room, the poem. Similarly, my daughter’s death was caused by some (not known) toxin that made its way into her mother’s body and caused a hole in her lung-diaphragm. I wanted the poem to be poisoned.
I’m curious about the concept of debt at play throughout the book. Unlike the naturalistic imagery you employ, debt is this unnatural invention unique to humanity. It’s also abstract in a way. Earlier you mentioned the linguistic pun of skuld/oskuld, virgin/debt. Throughout Summer, there’s an urgent desire to be rid of debt, to reclaim a sense of purity perhaps: “a rabble strong enough / to kill my debt / to make me a virgin.” It got me thinking about debt in relation to art, a pursuit that has intrinsic spiritual value but can also be commodified to have monetary value. Do we make art to pay our karmic debt? Are we indebted to art for what it can teach us, the nourishment it can provide?
This is one of the central concerns of the book. Maybe it began in Arachne’s aftermath and all the money that was involved, the debt I accrued because of what wasn’t covered by insurance. But there are any number of debts in here. Art is often attacked as “gratuitous.” Writing about art is full of charges of “gratuitous sex” or “gratuitous violence,” a rhetoric that reveals a culture in which art has to be paid for with some kind of sentimental idea of personhood. The best art is always gratuitous. On some level, I felt I was being gratuitous, paradoxically, by writing about my grief (very sentimental!), but also because the interlingual energies seemed the essence of gratuitousness, and perhaps most of all, in my desire for summer. Summer is a purist ideal—with all the traps of abjection—but through the poem it becomes something else, a “Giovanni’s room” where “all the garbage” pours in. Summer becomes its opposite: a site of intensity, death. I can’t pay for it.
It’s a shame “gratuitous” is considered an insult. I agree that often the best art is indulgent, unhinged, chaotic. There’s an insidious undercurrent in much of the literary establishment that enshrines restraint, coherence, cleanliness above all else. They look down their noses at anything too messy or ambiguous or strange. Surreal writing is deemed “lazy,” depictions of sex and violence are considered unnecessary or even harmful. Where do you think these conservative attitudes stem from? How can readers and writers alike work to combat these repressive modes of thought?
Where does the need to “balance the books” come from? I think Bataille pointing in the direction of capitalism, protestantism, is probably at least partially right. Also: the elitism of our privileged east coast cultural establishment. Generations of writers have been rewarded for learning how to be tasteful, and they’ve been turned into tastemakers and gatekeepers in turn. But poetry must run counter to good taste, which is antithetical to true art. You have to find that ecstatic, intensive space where everything chimes. This is true also for readers.
A similar sort of literary elitism tends to reject works in translation. Maybe it’s due partly to the pretensions of Americanism, but I’ve even seen arguments that people should only read books in their native language because translations are inherently flawed. I couldn’t disagree more. It’s such a limiting way to engage with literature, and I have tremendous respect for writers who translate books. Why do you think certain circles shun works in translation? On the flip side, how would you encourage English speakers to seek out more writing by international authors and learn about the art of translation?
My book Transgressive Circulation is all about this antipathy toward translation. One answer has to do with how we view poetry. Many like to think that the poem is some kind of pure act of communication—a noiseless, well wrought urn—and the mediation of translation introduces the threat of noise. As I’m fond to point out, translation generates too many versions of too many texts, from too many different lineages and cultures. I.e., translation generates excess. As Michel Serres pointed out, it is through noise we reach something new. And this is the other problem with translation. Through its excess, its noise, translation generates something new. This is a threat to the US status quo, so the people invested in maintaining the status must oppose translation. I think the key is to engage with foreign lit, write about foreign lit, and—this is important but also kind of controversial—bring the foreign lit into conversation with US poetry. Don’t put it in a quarantine. Bring it into US poetry. This is very important. This is something I’ve spent a lot of time and energy on.
Circling back to Summer, much of the language is suffused with palpable violence (perhaps this can be said about a lot of your poetry). Mentions of war, riots, rifles, wounds, and blood abound. “I drink the milk / of a thousand bullets / I massacre language.” I like this idea of destroying language to create something new. How has violence informed your work? What do you see as the relationship between violence and language, whether in Summer or in general?
Good question. Years ago when we ran the collective blog Montevidayo, Joyelle McSweeney (my wife) wrote a post about “the ambient violence” of my first book—how the violence is not just pervasive but even ambient, taking all kinds of shapes and moving in all kinds of directions. I think that description is pretty good. I think we live in a fundamentally violent world, and language certainly has the capacity to move like violence. When I started Summer, I thought “summer” was going to be a peaceful zone, a place I could keep the violence out of. But as the poem went along, I realized trying to keep it out was its own violence—and it became an ambiently violent space. Saturated by violence. The violence of a toxic world (which is what led to Arachne’s death), a violent status quo, but also an imagined violence against this status quo. At times, I began to entertain different acts of violence as a revenge of sorts on the world, but I don’t think it helped me. Ultimately, I don’t know what to do with this toxicity, but I know I can’t leave it out of the poems. It’s in there. On every page.
I appreciate how open you’ve been about losing your daughter, both in Summer and in our conversation. The book left quite an imprint on me, as I recently became a father myself, and I could feel your pain and anguish resonating throughout the poems. I truly cannot imagine anything more nightmarish than the death of a child, so I commend you for writing about your grief, which I’m sure was not easy. In addition to personal tragedy, there’s also an apocalyptic undercurrent in Summer. Ecological collapse and climate change seem to mirror the loss of a loved one. But “summer” being an idyllic place, a sort of Eden, there’s also an optimistic bent. “I win I win I win.” As a parent, a poet, and a longtime teacher, what advice can you offer other writers who wish to explore trauma, whether on a personal level or at a global scale? What gives you hope?
Thanks for your comments. I have to admit I don’t believe in optimism, I believe in poetry: poetry’s capacity to be a room where the dead can be present in their death. During Arachne’s brief life, mostly spent by her side for hours in her hospital room, I sang to her and I read. I would sometimes—especially after her death—read poems on Twitter, and I was furious at the self-help poems with their uplifting epiphanies. I saw—and I still see—this poetry as an attempt to control and commodify grief, an effect that is so strong, so fierce, so anarchic that it can convulse not just poetry but an entire society. The things I read that helped me—Philip K. Dick, Ballard, Aase Berg—was writing that processed the intensity of having a body, including the strange feeling of both horror and—I can’t help but say it though it might seem insane—love when holding one’s daughter’s dead body.
Johannes Göransson is the author of nine books of poetry and criticism, most recently Summer (2022), and is the translator of several books of poetry, including works by Aase Berg, Ann Jäderlund, Helena Boberg and Kim Yideum. His poems, translations and critical writings have appeared in a wide array of journals in the US and broad, including Fence, Lana Turner, Spoon River Review, Modern Poetry in Translation (UK), Kritiker (Denmark) and Lyrikvännen (Sweden). His is a professor in the English Department at the University of Notre Dame and, together with Joyelle McSweeney, edits Action Books.
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