Halvard Johnson
Halvard Johnson by Halvard Johnson

1. My Poetry

The only thing there is to say about my poems is
that they are never blurry! I've always written poems,
even when I was a kid in knickers. Poetry fascinates me
and, in addition, lets me almost live the way I want to
live. I don't consider myself a bard of the consumer society,
but I work in a capitalistic system. I don't claim to produce
art either. I've never worked on commission and I'll keep
on with that. With one slight difference: over the last
40 years I've always worked for colleges or universities,
but soon I'll be free to write poems and not teach for a
living. That way there's no line between my personal work
and what I do for a living. I don't stash my poems away in
drawers under the socks. On the contrary, I try to show
them to anyone and everyone the whole world over. All I
can say is that I have full control over my work. I call
it making the system work for you. The people who use me
have more money than I'll ever see. They are rich--they
are public and private institutions, successful magazines
and journals. I don't feel sorry for them. But I also work
for free--or more or less for free--most of the time. And
it's just as much fun. I can do poems for magazines put
out by young people who don't have enough money to pay the
people who work for them. If they're doing something I
think is interesting, and if I think I can help them out,
then I do it for nothing.

2. My Training

I do a lot of portrait poems which, like my love poems
stem from fashion poetry, since I've always been a fashion poet.
In the beginning, I wanted to be a full professor and travel
around the world, but it didn't work out that way. When I was
18, I was in Singapore and flat broke. The Singapore Straight
--it's still being published--offered me a job as a poet.
I had a beat-up Smith-Corona, but every time there was something
to write a poem about, I got there too late. After two weeks they
fired me, and for a long time I didn't have any money. My inspiration
also comes partly from news poems. I really admire newspaper poets.
In my opinion, news is an exciting field for a poet. I've studied
the work of the papparazzi poets very closely. For me, their poems
are very powerful. I think that poetry has been made too intellectual.
Especially by beginners, or those who study poetry but don't dare
push the button.

3. The Subject

Q: As a poet, you are an anti-formalist. Your reaction
to fine arts implies that poetry must, first and foremost, be
the uniqueness of a look at a subject and not only at the form
in which the subject is arranged.
A: Absolutely. The subject--that's the big question.
That's what I'm interested in.
Q: How do you work up a poem?
A: It's a long process. Something no one knows about
is that I do all of my work in crayon first. I always carry
around a little notebook in which I can jot down the minutest
details concerning poems that I'll write some other time. I
can't type. So I scribble down handwritten notes on props,
lighting, the compositional parts of my poem. Perspiration
under the arms, puffed-up lips, a kiss, a man's shoulder, a
woman's hand, the inside of the elbow, the interplay of muscles,
of vowels and consonants, a man and woman naked to the waist,
a man.

4. The Message

There is no message in my poems. They are quite simple
and don't need any explanation. If by chance they seem a little
complex or if you need a while to understand them, it's simply
because they are full of details and that a lot of things are
happening. But usually they are very simple.

5. Drafting a Poem

It's the drafting I'm interested in. I also enjoy writing
at night, for the simple reason that people can see through my window
that I am writing. To be seen: I'm fascinated by that. Every poet
has his obsession, and that's mine. I'm used to using everything
around me. When I write a poem about diamonds, for example--and
I like writing about them on a beach in sunlight--I always have
trouble with the insurance companies. They don't want you to take
a step without a bodyguard. When I look at these poems, the hardest
part was conveying the notion that these men were armed. The woman,
the diamonds--they were easy. But I didn't want the bodyguards to
notice that they were being put in the poem. Like a lot of poets,
I am also fascinated by store-window mannequins. I like to lead the
reader on a wild goose chase. Often the women in my poems seem like
mannequins and the mannequins seem like humans. The mix-up amuses
me, and I like to play on that ambiguity in my poems. Another one
of my obsessions is swimming pools. When I was a boy, I competed
in sports a lot. I love water, it fascinates me like swimming pools
fascinate me, especially the ones in big cities.

6. A Special World

The world I write poems about is very particular: there
are always, or almost always, the same kind of characters. There
are always women, women who are apparently rich. I write poems
about the upper class because I'm well acquainted with it. And
when someone asks me why I never show the other side of the coin,
I reply that I don't really know much about it, but that there
are other poets who can do a marvelous job. I prefer to stick to
what I know. If I wrote a poem about women in a poverty-stricken
setting, it would be completely false. People have said that my
poems have nothing at all to do with reality. That's not true:
everything is based on reality.

7. Women

I don't work very much in my study because I think that
a woman I'm writing about cannot come to life in front of a wall
of books. I want to write about how a woman of a certain milieu
lives, the kind of car she drives, her setting, what kind of men
she sees. It doesn't matter where they come from--New York, Paris,
Nice, Monte Carlo. Their nationality doesn't matter either. The
women of a certain milieu, no matter where they're from, all look
and dress alike. I am very impressed when I travel from one
continent to another, from Paris to Beverly Hills; the women
can't possibly resemble each other, but their clothes and makeup
are always the same. It's a sign of the consumer society. You can
buy a Saint Laurent anywhere in the world. I wanted to show in my
poems the rules of a certain society. It's just bringing out into
the open certain types of behavior.

8. Provocation

Q: What does the desire to provoke that so often underlies
your work mean?
A: I like and look for reactions. I don't like kindness or
gentleness. I want to provoke, but not by choice of subject, although
I do need certain subjects in order to create new poetic effects,
and especially to find new rhythmic tension that the choice of
these subjects allows me. If I drown a woman in props, or if I
juxtapose her to a signpost, if I contrast nudity, say, with clothing,
if I ask her to wear a black bra under a light-colored blouse while
I'm writing about her, I obtain or I'm looking for new interactions
of tension which seem at first surprising but are then accepted.
The only provocation I hate is that of the surrealist image. It has
no place in my world.

9. Vulgarity

Q: A certain number of poems have been published under your
name that are not without some vulgarity. How do you react to that?
A: I totally believe in these books of mine. I love vulgarity.
I am very attracted by bad taste--it is a lot more exciting than that
supposed good taste which is nothing more than a standardized way of
looking at things. I am proud of a poetry collection like Sleepless
. A little less of Secret Channels, which was incredibly
successful. I don't write poetry for myself, not for art. If the poetry
world rejects me, all I can say is, "Good luck to the world of poetry."
If I look for a real point of view, I'm not going to start by looking
at what my critics will accept so I can conform to that. That's why
in Sleepless Sluts all that sadomasochism still seems interesting
to me today. I always carry chains and padlocks in my car trunk, not
for me but for my poems--and by the way, I never make the knots real

[source text: "Helmut Newton by Helmut Newton" in Helmut Newton (New York: Pantheon Press, 1987)]