“I want to drown in poetry”: A Conversation with Johannes Göransson & a Folio of New Work – Curated by Kristina Marie Darling

Johannes Göransson is the author of several books, including The Sugar Book (Tarpaulin Sky, 2015) and Haute Surveillance (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2013), and is the translator of Aase Berg’s Hackers (Black Ocean, 2017). He teaches at the University of Notre Dame and lives in South Bend, Indiana.

KMD:  The poet Myung Mi Kim often spoke of the text as a “life-work” or “a recurring site of engagement.”  Does this sequence take up questions that you have considered while working in other forms, including translation, curatorial work, and criticism?  What unique opportunities does the long poem afford as you revisit these questions?

JG:  That’s a nice phrase. Yes, the multilingualism of the poem stages the conflict between languages, which is something I’ve written about/in for a long time. In some ways from the very start (When I started to write poems, it was acts of translation). In these poems I’m trying to process something that was a big part of my book of translation essays (Transgressive Circulation) – how money, economics and debt shapes our way of thinking about pretty much everything, especially Art, which switches between a valuable commodity and shit, a debt. The long poem as a “recurring site” allows for a submersion that is essential to art. I want to drown in poetry. 

KMD:  Your poems frequently drift between languages.  The English-speaking reader is at turns confidante and linguistic other.  I appreciate the way you challenge linguistic imperialism and frustrate a sense of readerly entitlement.  Through innovation in language, what reading practices do hope to foster in your audience?

JG:  I love that idea of the “confidante” vs “linguistic other.” A beautiful way of describing your experience. I don’t think much about the audience. I have never felt a strong sense of belonging to any kind of community (something that probably comes from being an immigrant) so I never assumed any one kind of reader. I expect people to react in different ways, ways I can’t predict. The first places these poems were published were in Romania, Peru, Argentina and Sweden – in translation in every case (mostly into languages I don’t know at all). 

The way the Swedish came into the poem was that I was spending a summer in Sweden writing while listening to Swedish pop music on the radio. Stein said she went to Europe to be alone with the English language. For me the Swedish wouldn’t let me be alone with the English, it seeped in sonically. However, as I go back over the text and revise it, I do think about a non-Swedish-speaker understanding the Swedish: I repeat certain phrases over and over. In some sense I think the poems gradually makes a Swedish-reader out of non-Swedish reader. It’s written in “änglish” (as I write in a ridiculous pun in several poems) – part English, part Angel, part Meadow. 

KMD:  In addition to your work as a writer, you have championed international literature within the American literary landscape.  Why is it important from a craft standpoint to read texts that exist beyond or outside of one’s own culture?

JG:  From a political point, I think it’s inherently important to move beyond our English-centered, hegemonic position. But it’s also true from a “craft standpoint,” because there’s so much good writing from elsewhere (I started to publish/champion foreign writing because I liked it better than I liked the leading US writers) and also because reading foreign lit I think leads us to read US/English lit more adventurously. It changes one’s relationship to language, troubles the kind of linguistic certainty that I see in so much rhetoric of US poetry discussions, a certainty that often goes along with skepticism, dismissiveness toward non-US poetry, as well as toward US poetry that doesn’t follow the rules. 

KMD:   Relatedly, what has your work as an editor at Action Books opened up within your craft?  Within this project specifically?

JG:  My work with Action Books has shaped my writing over the past 15 years. I have found closer comrades, I’ve struggled with language as a translation editor, I’ve become part of transnational exchanges and discussion that have inspired and urged me on. I’m not sure how this project has specifically been influenced by my Action Books work. Though it was definitely influenced by translating Helena Boberg’s Sense Violence (Black Ocean, 2020) with its summer imagery, its violent flowers, its queer-baroque politics. Though also probably from Action Books titles Ursula Andkjaer Olsen’s 3rd Millennium Heart (trans. Katrine Øgaard-Jensen) and Hitomi Ito’s Wild Grass on the Riverbank (trans. Jeffrey Angles).  

KMD:  What’s next?  What can readers look forward to?

JG:  In addition to Sense Violence, my own book of diary entries from 2014, POETRY AGAINST ALL is being published this spring (by Tarpaulin Sky Press). It’s a book of diary entries I meant originally to be part of my last book, The Sugar Book, but then took out because I felt things were getting too meta and too “auto fiction”. Then Michael Slosek at the Poetry Foundation asked me for an essay for their website – I had nothing in my brain at the time but thought of this manuscript of cuts from The Sugar Book and gave him a selection. My longtime publisher Christian Peet at Tarpaulin Sky saw the entries and asked if there was more. There was. It’s a doubly parasitical book because a lot of the entries are about reading the diaries of Swedish poet-dramatist Lars Norén’s diaries (and other books, such as Gabrielle Wittkop’s The Necrophiliac), but it’s also about being a foreigner in one’s own home and about my experiences as a foreign poet in the US (frequently attacked as “pornographic,” barbaric). 

I am also working on finishing a reworking of my first book A New Quarantine Will Take My Place, which was published by Apostrophe almost 15 years ago. One day a couple of years ago Swedish poet-novelist-performer Sara Tuss Efrik wrote to me to say she had “translated” the book into Swedish. It was a fantastically “unfaithful” translation – more like she inhabited my language but brought in her own experiences (real or imagined, hallucinated). It was a fantastic book, so I decided to translate it “back” into English. But as I translated, I took on her method of inhabiting the text. But then the text began to inhabit me. The project took on occult features. We wrote back and forth – with each other, with Shirley, with Louise. Now we have a huge document of occult translation mania that we are trying to pare back to something like a horror film. 

As for Summer, the raw materials of it is finished but it’s much too long. I’ll probably spend a few years working on it before it’s done. 


A Folio of Poetry by Johannes Göransson