Powers and Motivations: An Interview with Patrick Johnson

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Patrick Johnson earned his MFA in poetry at Washington University in St. Louis and completed his undergraduate in English Literature at University of Wisconsin-Madison. His collection of poems and short essays about the deep web, loneliness, and connection entitled GATEKEEPER was selected by Khaled Mattawa to win the 2019 Ballard Spahr Prize for Poetry and was published by Milkweed Editions in 2019. He is currently studying to become a physician assistant and lives in Madison


MQR: Can you tell us how you landed upon the subject of your book? Start from your earliest beginnings as a writer, until you landed on, or chiseled your way to the concept of this book? How does it intersect with your own life, if you don’t mind telling us, and or your interests in technology, psychology, and philosophy?

Patrick Johnson (PJ): Retrospectively, I’ve always been interested in motivations, wanting to understand the power dynamics that allow for oppression and liberation. I began writing classically lyric poems based in nature featuring animals, I guess, as a way to escape the human world, and later to hold a mirror to our flawed humanness. I liked that animals could represent the improper, the inhuman, and the Other, but they could also be beautiful images in and of themselves. I had some friends in college who were into the deep web, specifically an online market where they were buying drugs. Once, they showed me the Hidden Wiki, which catalogues a number of sites where users log on to do anonymous things (online crime forums, ammunition sales, WikiLeaks, etc.). That—as a locus of power—stuck with me. I’m not a tech person, but I was interested in the underbelly aspect of it. I began writing about the layers of the deep web and realized that I was posing some of the same questions as I did when I was writing lyric poems set in nature—questions of agency, what makes us human, how we’re shaped by our landscape, and does it trap us or free us? Then, I realized it wasn’t just a critique of society that I was interested in but an investigation into my own identity and my connection to others. “I looked at the others / to start to see my self.” I realized in writing this project that I’m bisexual. 

MQR: At some point, you said you thought of writing the poem in terza rima (a stanza best known as Dante’s in the Divine Comedy). One echo for me is that Gatekeeper is about a kind of limbo, a state of endless temporariness, or incompletion. Were you in any way in conversation with Dante, whichever of his books, in yours? What made the terza rima attractive at some point, and why did you abandon it in the end.

PJ: There is a state of recurring, endless temporariness, and the poems move that way, taking one step forward and one step back, stuck in medias res. Anon shows Empath the unfathomable layers of the deep web. Empath comes to exist both in that internet world and in the physical world. Something similar happens in the Inferno: descendent, Virgil maps layers of wrongdoing for Dante, situating Italian politicians (Dante’s contemporaries) within the circles of Hell. To me, the physical journey is all allegory, and what’s being mapped are consequences of actions, as a tool for the reader’s mind. 

Because Empath’s love story plays out online-only, the question arises, Is this true love? Is it still love if Anon isn’t a real person but a series of automated responses? This love has a narrative, but if Empath could no longer log on, would it be paused or deleted? 

In the age of catfishing and ghosting, my hope is that especially young people relate to these attitudes toward love, and that’s another Dantean thing about Gatekeeper: Dante decided to write the Divine Comedy in Italian rather than Latin in order to reach laypeople and say something that shaped them, which is something I wanted too. Terza rima was initially attractive to me as a nod to Dante and because the pattern is governed by these tercets made of interlocking couplets, and I like how that’s both stable and unstable. I ended up fighting with the form too much. I didn’t need the pleasure to come from the prosody. I needed to free it up so I could alternate between a high lyric voice and a more prosaic voice that was comprehensible to laypeople and allowed them to understand the complex system of the deep web.

MQR: Giorgio Agamben’s What is an Apparatus opens your book. The apparatus at least in Foucault’s terms as the “dispositif” refers to the close link between philosophy and friendship. Agamben develops it further as “anything that has in some way the capacity to capture, orient, determine, intercept, model, control, or secure the gestures, behaviors, opinions, or discourses of living things.” Like Foucault’s notion of power, the apparatus has its own mode of operation, a social mechanism, in which we take part, and can’t control or wield totally. What’s interesting in Agamben’s redefinition is that the apparatus is a machinery of our intimate interactions. And what’s haunting perhaps is in your book that it is done through machines, where we’re not sure if “the person” we’re interacting with is actually human or a composite that has captured our modes of intimacy. I guess what I mean by this long intro is, in what way Agamben notion of the apparatus spoke to your book, and how are you developing/riffing/creating something new out of his ideas?

PJ: The idea of the apparatus became a way for me to reflect on our preoccupation with technology and the ways corporations prey upon our reliance on it, by purchasing our data and using it against our free will or by making things like happiness or success inescapably mediated by our phones. Agamben is more cynical than me, but I like what he writes about processes of subjectification and de-subjectification. He traces this idea of the apparatus to the sacrament of penance: you enter this technology (the confessional booth), thereby negating your old self in an act of de-subjectification, in order to emerge sin-free. De-subjectification occurs with any choice to let yourself be controlled by an apparatus, ideally to emerge as a new, better subject. So when someone spends three hours on TikTok, how are they interacting with that interface? Are they learning about themselves or others, emerging as a new subject? Have they created a new identity? If no, that person is no longer an agent. The technology has controlled them. They feel powerless because the technology has entertained them but also shown them their inadequacy. This is something that plays out in Gatekeeper: Empath gains self-knowledge by talking to Anon but becomes obsessed and controlled by that love, which appears unattainable. 

MQR: The poems are in lines and prose clusters mainly. They’re expository and lyrical and create an aura of narrative potential. However, each section begins with a very intense talismanic stanza about the size of a haiku, which often has little to do with the pieces they precede. What do these short poems do?

PJ: They’re like lyric notecards, a shorthand for various ways of thinking, similar to typing keywords into the Notes app when there’s something I want to remember. They work kind of like Sappho’s fragments: out of context, incomplete, and yet signifying something personal. I started to think of them as existing on a screen, like a text message, specifically enacting the experience of, say, getting a text message that wasn’t meant for you, or when messages get out of order, and you have to make sense of it. Sometimes there’s a whole essay compressed into those little poems. They represent the many ways the speaker is trying to process the world—emotionally, philosophically, mathematically, politically, etc. 

MQR: Many of us have loved ones and relatives who live far away, and digital formats are often the only means we communicate with them. What I’ve noticed is in my own interactions with loved ones who are far away is that they are as present as they are absent. I could be talking to one of them, and then all of a sudden, I get distracted and forget about them, and they do the same. Their continuous presence is reassuring, but their sudden absence stings with abandonment. How does the idea of presence/absence (Anon’s particularly)—which you express with a degree of yearning in the book–figure in the world you’ve outlined? 

PJ: The internet allows us to be in contact with loved ones from far away, to be able to hear and see them from the other side of the world. But it also allows us to create scenarios in our head about how lonely or unloved or uninteresting we are. You send someone something and see that it was delivered but never hear back. Is it because they don’t care about you? Or because they have an onslaught of other messages to respond to? Where do we give our attention and why? Texting allows us to create false realities in a person’s absence. 

By the other side of the coin, I think texting in real-time can make for the most erotic/intense/vulnerable connection you can have with another person. It seems to be a more immediate form of language than speech, without considerations of body language, social decorum, tone of voice, etc. A person can sometimes better translate their “real” self—or the self they want to be—into a text, and there’s cognitive heat there. Giving someone attention, even just your digital presence and your listening ear, can be life-saving even.

Then, why does the intensity of that connection sometimes not play out the same in real life? Why does a person feel cold in the next moment? Is it because they were simply bored before? Does there come a time when a purely digital relationship needs physical presence to be sustained? 

I think Gatekeeper depicts that hot/cold duality and the anxiety of spinning false realities in the gray area between presence and absence that technology creates.

MQR: We discussed the duality, the hot/cold relationship with digital conversations. In our current environment, where we are moving to a much more digital world, we are also dealing with ideas like “Zoom exhaustion.” How do you think that affects the relationships we maintain digitally?

PJ: Zoom exhaustion is real. I know a lot of other people have written about this, but I think it exists because there’s a cultural conversation about attention and technology that we’ve been meaning to have, and that’s long overdue. This digital divide started in the era of sending letters to your lovers on the other side of the ocean that would take months or years to arrive. You would take the time to write this letter and pass it through so many hands, hoping that your lover in a hamlet far away is even alive to read it, or that they haven’t taken another lover in your absence—there’s something beautiful about it. Afterwards, when you were waiting for a response, you could romantically toil in their absence on your own without having to think about how you looked or sounded or came across to them. Your attention could remain on the fantasy or the memory of them, which is such a human thing to do, to dwell on a person’s absence.

There’s nothing beautiful about Zoom calls with upwards of 30 people. And I think this has to do with the kind of attention it requires. We’re asked to do a bunch of Zoom calls for work, so then our working life has invaded our personal space, but then we also do family calls, and friend calls, and poetry readings, so something that takes up our attention for work is also the interface we use for fun. Zoom becomes the substitute for in-person work, and in-person socializing, and now it’s no longer just an alternative but the peak social experience that we can do safely. 

Zoom, especially with large groups, demands so much immediate attention (it can be considered rude to multi-task), and you have to be aware of your mic being off when you’re in a listening role in a way that kind of requires you to be a statue, giving attention with your eyes even when you have little intention of participating. Then the dynamics just get complicated when one person’s video is on and another’s is off. There’s little spontaneity to it, just too many opportunities for power imbalance and too high of a social expectation of attention without much individual attention in return. And because it’s immediately at our fingertips and yet those people remain just figures on a screen, there’s high tension and no release. I don’t think it feels very prosocial to be on Zoom. It feels perfunctory or performative.

MQR: This is perhaps related to the idea of the apparatus, but as the idea of love, and maybe even desire is expressed in your book, I’m struck by how much, in fact, it is the language of love that we yearn for. Robbed of our bodies, we are thrust into language as our only source of sustenance and pleasure. This strikes me as the melancholic center of your book, that you are talking about melancholia, and how language can’t fill it. Am I on the right track here?

PJ: We do want to receive the language of love. Empath wants a connection with Anon and is nourished by those moments of conversation. The problem is we want to receive the language of love even when we know it’s conditional, flawed, or toxic because sometimes it’s all we have to cope with the loneliness and uncertainty of the world. These conversations capture Empath in the apparatus of unrequited love. We see also how language itself can trap us. The love that Empath searches for is a queer love, a kind of unscripted, new connection, outside of any power dynamic.

MQR: Who is the Gatekeeper? 

PJ: We’re all the Gatekeeper, learning to open and close the gate depending on how much we want to reveal. I’ve thought about this a lot in the past few years, but especially in the last few months with the energy behind racial justice and ABAR. Someone once told me that we should seek to eliminate power to end oppression. I wonder, do we want power, but the problem is people have unequal, unfair access to it, so the goal may be to make power differentials completely random, rather than ruled by things like class, race, gender, sexuality, nationality, etc.? To that end, we shouldn’t be gatekeepers but key-makers, helping others to unlock gates that have kept those without power from having access. 

I think in Gatekeeper, we witness the effects (positive and negative) of Empath falling in love with the gatekeeper of a particular kind of knowledge and attention, Anon. It’s a lesson in why it’s important to learn to become a key-maker and give everyone a key.