Pen Names, Poets, Lies, & Missing Persons

March 7, 2009

posted by Caroline Picard

araki yasusada


I’ve always loved stories of secrecy – people who construct elaborate hoaxes, fake identities, spies – what have you. I don’t why I like those stories, exactly, except that there seems to be a way in which the secret maker transcends his or her peculiar reality. Take that, take a right after the already longstanding conversation of Oprah’s friend who lied about being in the holocaust and carry on to this next poet, araki yasusada. His bio is, allegedly, as follows:

“Yasusada was born in 1907 in the city of Kyoto, where he lived until 1921, when his family moved to Hiroshima. He attended Hiroshima University sporadically between 1925 and 1928, with the intent of receiving a degree in Western Literature. Due, however, to his father’s illness, he was forced, in the interests of the family, to undertake full-time employment with the postal service and withdraw from his formal studies.

“In 1930 he married his only wife Nomura, with whom he had two daughters and a son. In 1936, Yasusada was conscripted into the Japanese Imperial Army and worked as a clerk in the Hiroshima division of the Military Postal Service. His wife and youngest daughter Chieko, died instantly in the atomic blast on August 6. His daughter Akiko survived, yet perished less than four years later from radiation sickness. His son, Yasunari, an infant at the time, was with relatives outside the city.

“Yasusada died in 1972 after a long struggle with cancer.”

A poem of his is like this:

March 30, 1925 


iris moon sheathsscubadivers chrysanthemums also

deer inlets dream

oars this earth

geese lined bowl

shard so horizon

cod dried dawn

bones sky written

lichened space rock

fossils celebrating investors

crematorium shared persimmon

hyacinth clustered strangers

              cranes three words 


and yet he does not (likely) exist. He has, nevertheless been published all over the place. The only person who seems to materialize behind this figment is Kent Johnson, a professor in Illinois. What is remarkable about this hoax is that Johnson, a poet in his own right, has been able to cultivate a distinct style for araki. And suspicions abound. (He, for the record, has never admitted being the author, instead says the author died, but passed the poems to him). You can read more about him by visiting this site

Or, you can read this excerpt: “TURNING JAPANESE: THE HIROSHIMA POETRY HOAX”

by Emily Nussbaum


OVER THE PAST FIVE YEARS, major poetry journals like Grand Street and Conjunctions have showcased a remarkable discovery–the work of Hiroshima survivor Araki Yasusada. Vivid, surreal poems and assorted literary artifacts (letters, drains of haiku) appeared alongside a heart – wrenching biography: Yasusada, readers learned, had lost most of his family in the bomb blast. Hitherto unknown, this unexpectedly witty, experimental poet offered a striking new link between Japanese sensibilities and Western avant-garde poetics, with a style influenced by both renga and Roland Barthes. The writing impressed editors and readers alike with its brittle imagery (“When I hold by tongue inside a written sentence/it blisters”), so different from the sentimental voices of many other Hiroshima poets. Sadly, Yasusada had died of cancer in 1972, but his unruly notebooks, which were in the process of being translated, attracted enough interest to be considered for publication by Wesleyan University Press.


But even as Yasusada’s resume grew, a rumor began spreading in the poetry community: There was no Yasusada, editors whispered to each other–at least not in the usual, one-author-one-body sense. The same manuscripts submitted to poetry journals (and mailed from a variety of locations, including California, Tokyo, Illinois, and London) had shown up on the desks of prominent academics like MarJorie Perloff, but with a notable difference: “Yasusada” was presented as an invented persona, the creation of one or more people intent on keeping its origins a secret. Messages slowly surfaced on the Internet warning editors about an ongoing deception.

ONCE WORK of the hoax leaked out, many editors who had published the writing–sometimes with poignant footnotes on the death of Yasusada’s daughter from radiation poisoning–were furious. “This is essentially a criminal act,” says Arthur Vogelsang, editor of American Poetry Review, which published an entire “special supplement” of Yasusada’s work, complete with a fake “portrait” of the author, this past June. When Wesleyan’s editors learned they’d been snookered, they dropped the “notebooks” manuscript cold.

And continue reading the article by going here….


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