I am suddenly aware that phrases happen
Lyn Hejinian at Kelly Writers House, February 22, 2005
Editorial note: Lyn Hejinian (b. 1941) is a poet, editor, and professor in the English department at UC Berkeley. She is the author of Writing Is an Aid to Memory (1978), My Life (1980, 1987, 2002), Happily (2000), and The Fatalist (2003). Her most recent book, The Book of a Thousand Eyes, is forthcoming in April 2012. She is also the author of a book of essays, The Language of Inquiry (2000). She edited Tuumba Press from 1976 to 1984, coedited Poetics Journal with Barrett Watten from 1981 to 1999, and currently coedits Atelos with Travis Ortiz. In 2005, Lyn Hejinian was a Writers House fellow. An audio recording of Hejinian’s reading and discussion while in residence can be found at PennSound. What follows is a transcription of a discussion held at the Kelly Writers House on February 22, 2005. It was originally transcribed by Michael Nardone and has been edited for readability. — Katie L. Price
Al Filreis: Lyn, the reading last night was terrific. How many of you were at the reading last night?
Am I right that it was terrific?
And the session with the students was fantastic. So let’s see if we can continue where we left off. Thank you for doing this.
Lyn Hejinian: It’s my pleasure. This is the oddest situation I’ve ever been in as a poet.
Filreis: Never done a live webcast?
Hejinian: I’ve never seen a live webcast.
Filreis: We had a strange situation once where we had Carl Rakosi, who was live from his home in San Francisco on an audiocast. So we were hearing him over the telephone and there we fifty of us in the room, and people called in from wherever they were. People called in from everywhere. And people called in from San Francisco who lived down the street from Carl, who hadn’t heard or seen him because he’s an old guy at that point, ninety-nine. They called here so that we could hear them talk to Carl, who lived down the street.
Hejinian: He was old when he died. He had passed his hundredth birthday. I took one of my graduate students to his 100th anniversary poetry reading. She was writing her PhD dissertation on the Objectivist poets, and of course he was one of the five major figures of that movement, such as it was. They all denied it was a movement, but that’s how we think of it now. He had named a number of poets who he wanted to come to the celebration to read their own work. He wanted it to be a celebration of poetry, not of him, which was very typical of Carl Rakosi, a very modest man. But anyway, I brought my student Ruth Jennison to this poetry reading. I introduced her to him, and then he nimbly walked up the flight of stairs to the room where the event was going to take place, and she said, “But he stands up!”
And he did. He went record shopping once a week to a record store in San Francisco, buying classical music mostly, but everything.
Filreis: A wonderful man. He was a joy. He read his poems and they are available: we have a recording of them. And they are really wonderful.
I wanted to ask you about The Fatalist.
Filreis: It’s a double question. One is a general question: I was hoping you would tell us how this thing came about, how it was organized. But a little more specifically: in the first movement of the thing, you say, or the speaker says, this wonderful thing: “People talk about the ineluctable character of the ‘lyric moment’ / but it seems to me that it is an astonishingly sturdy and detailed moment.” And if there were a period or a breath there, it would be a complicated enough statement, but it goes on to say it is in fact not ineluctable, but “astonishingly sturdy and detailed … passing through the world as well as through dreams.”
So my first question is: can you tell us how this thing got written? And second, why is it that — I don’t know if Lyn Hejinian agrees with what the speaker is saying there, but insofar as Lyn Hejinian does — why is the lyric moment in fact sturdy in detail, and how detailed?
Hejinian: Alright, to answer the first part of the question I’ll be as brief as I can. The book is in my voice. Over the course of exactly one year, I saved (in a single computer file) everything that I wrote to anybody: notes to students about their writing, or comments on dissertation chapters, letters to friends, e-messages. No matter how trivial, I saved it. And then about eight months into the saving I went back and, starting at the top of that file with the earliest material, I began sculpting away stuff that just wasn’t going to make anything useful as poetry.
Talking to some of you yesterday, I talked about it like a work of … Imagine a sculpture with a block of marble, and that was my text file. And then the sculptor chips away until the sculptor gets her piece of sculpture, whatever it is that she’s after. So I was sculpting away and the raw material was everything that I had written to people.
It’s called The Fatalist because I wanted to make the case that fate is not something that is going to happen, but is all that already has happened. That whatever has happened will never not have happened. Which is reassuring in some instances; for example, when one is regretting the death of somebody. It can never be said that that person never lived. That person always has lived, and always will have lived. And, of course, it’s terrifying if there are things that you don’t want to have happen; the irrevocable interests me, too.
I worked as an assistant to a private detective for a few years, working on murder cases, and I got really obsessed with the moment in which a murder happened: it could never unhappen and everybody was trapped in it having happened. But I can’t believe it was preordained — fated in that sense. That said, it was our job as private investigators to attempt to persuade the court that it was inevitable, in some sense, by virtue of “mitigating circumstances” (the murderer’s having been abused, or being mentally ill, or brain-damaged, etc.). We were working for the defense attorneys; it was, at base, anti-death penalty work. But I am digressing a bit, although some of that material, because I had written to somebody about a little of it, seeps into the book. So I guess that’s fair to mention.
Anyway, if it’s a record of everything that happened, or at least everything that I spoke of having happened over the course of a year, then it becomes a work of fate, or a record of what occurs to a fatalist, as I am characterizing fate, tautologically and retrospectively, as that which has happened.
As for “the lyric moment.” That comes from a comment, actually an e-message, to a group of grad students who were working on the question of the lyric. I was arguing against the notion of the lyric moment, or of lyric poetry as always having to be transcendental in its trajectory, and arguing in favor of its being possible to imagine a lyric poetry that was local and detailed and not ineluctable, but … what’s the right word?
Filreis: Sturdy and detailed.
Hejinian: Sturdy and detailed, yes —
Filreis: Those were the words.
Hejinian: But I am trying not to repeat myself.
Filreis: How kind of you.
Hejinian: Alright, I’ll leave it at that: sturdy and detailed.
And as detailed as one wants to have it.
Filreis: Who’s taught you that? We were talking about Rakosi before. Is that something the Objectivists taught you: lyric, but detailed?
Filreis: Absolutely. Who else?
Hejinian: Zukofsky. Oppen.
Filreis: More recently, your colleagues? Who reminds you every day when you read him or her?
Hejinian: Ron Silliman, then.
Filreis: Why so?
Hejinian: His work is built entirely out of details, of sturdy details, observed and experienced and contemplated in an active way, not through passive contemplation, but through resolute attention to detail, precisely.
Filreis: And daily.
Hejinian: And daily, yeah.
Filreis: Not quotidian daily. Well, sometimes quotidian daily, but daily. And this has a dailyness to it, too, partly. It has a feel of that because —
Hejinian: You write something every day and it all went into there.
Filreis: And it all went in there. So it’s part of the structure of it.
I want to ask you one more question about The Fatalist and then, earlier than usual, we’ll open it up for questions.
But one more question. I really love this book, Lyn.
Filreis: And one more question is: this beautiful passage in which you get to say something that may or may not have to do with your My Life project — you notice I didn’t say may or may not have to do with “your life” —
Hejinian: That would be confusing for all of us.
Filreis: Your My Life project.
I’m missing the context of the whole when I quote this, but we can go back to it if we need to.
Isn’t every explanation like every autobiography (in which the author shows how everything in life ultimately holds together or how everything in life’s ultimately holding together is the life) sentimental?
So isn’t every explanation like every autobiography — parentheses sentimental? And then: For that I want a large format and I don’t want my face anywhere on it.
Hejinian: You got that right.
Filreis: I don’t want my face anywhere on it. It’s not just a political catastrophe we are living through.
So, I have two questions about that fantastic passage. And we know better than to ask of a Lyn Hejinian piece of writing that uses newish sentences and juxtaposes things — especially given the context, you know, the way you composed this thing — then to jam those two things together, but in a way that is my question.
The last comment is: It’s not just a political catastrophe we are living through, which rhetorically implies it is a political catastrophe, but there are other catastrophes. So my question is: Beyond the political catastrophe we are living through, what other catastrophes are we living through? And what, if anything, does that have to do with this problem of explanation and autobiography in the desire to have your picture on the book My Life?
How’s that for a question?
Hejinian: That’s a very good question, and almost impossible to answer adequately.
I was using the term political in a relatively narrow sense when writing that comment. In some ways, I think, one can use the term political to describe anything that affects humans, anything that affects living creatures. The ecological disaster that is underway now, I think, is a political disaster of a kind.
It certainly is being furthered by politicians. For example, those who won’t sign the Kyoto Accords, which is just the tiny beginning of acknowledging that there is a disaster underway.
But I also think there is a link to the word “sentimental” in that. I was playing on two sides of the term sentimental. One is the pejorative sense of “sentimental,” which I think informs the current climate that is always suggesting that what humans most want when they’re troubled is closure. That closure is going to resolve things. That we get over things once we have closure. And I am resentful of, and deeply troubled by, the impulse or the notion that we should all be getting over everything instead of actually living through it and maintaining ourselves in relationship to it.
So, in that sense it’s merely sentimental to try and get everything to cohere and then “have closure,” whereby everything is neatly fixed and fits together: the jigsaw puzzle is squared up, no pieces are missing, and you can put it back in the box and achieve closure.
But on the other side, I think that the term “sentimental” or “sentimentality,” in the eighteenth-century usage, is extremely interesting and dynamic and actually appears in what ends up as postmodern irony. Think, for example, of the work of Laurence Sterne — that would be maybe the most familiar writer, although if you are crazy about Diderot, you can look at some of Diderot’s writings also. It is very fragmentary and witty at the very point where lots of gaps occur, in, for example, Sterne’s novella or novel, A Sentimental Journey. That title, by the way, has been used repeatedly by modernist and then postmodern writers as an homage to Laurence Sterne, and precisely, I think, because of how sentiment works in it. For example, Victor Shklovsky, the Russian Formalist poet, wrote a book called A Sentimental Journey and the Bay-area Language School poet Kit Robinson wrote a long work called A Sentimental Journey, just to name two instances. In A Sentimental Journey, whenever anything occurs in which it is impossible to say anything about it, Sterne breaks off, and he breaks off often for very hilarious reasons: an orgasmic moment, or at the glimpse of an ankle, or the thought of a glass of wine! The ruptures or disjunctions are markers of feelings which are beyond speech, and markers of strong sensibility or sentimentality therefore, but not in a maudlin or easy way.
Another example is Langston Hughes’s two-volume autobiographical work: The Big Sea and I Wonder as I Wander. As you know if you are familiar with those books, they are written in vignettes, and very short vignettes. And between those vignettes is where the sentiment lies, where the deep emotion lies. He never speaks of homophobia, of racism, or of the difficulties of his life as a left-wing African American gay poet, but you feel it in the book, in those gaps. And they are also very ironic gaps. Irony arises when you say one thing and mean another, which is to say that you don’t say something — and it’s the not saying that is sentimental in the positive sense.
So, I am not sure how I said that in that sentence.
Filreis: No, it’s fantastic. So, the larger catastrophe is our failure to understand the latter sense of sentiment —
Hejinian: And to keep filling in the gaps with blather, drivel that is sentimental in the vulgar sense —
Filreis: So the picture on the faux-autobiography, on the autobiography, is a way of trying to do a “been there, done that, got it” thing.
So, do you remember to whom you were addressing or who is the addressee of that statement?
Hejinian: I don’t remember.
Hejinian: I really don’t. I’m not hedging here.
Filreis: No, no, no. That’s perfectly good.
Okay. So, we want to take some questions from you.
Kerry Sherin Wright: Ms. Hejinian, I just want to thank you for your reading last night, and for the whole experience yesterday. It was great. My question is: During your reading last night of My Life in the Nineties, you mentioned a phrase, I believe it was “where there are words, there is barbarism” or something about that. And that really sort of got me thinking. I went back and read your “Barbarism” essay from The Language of Inquiry to get a better sense of it. You mention in your barbarism essay that the poet is a barbarian, and your view that the poet is a barbarian, is a foreigner in some way. And I was just wondering the extent to which you think that’s necessary or a sort of a requisite for a poet to be in this sort of foreign space? Is that a function of an activist poet, or poetry in general? Is it a requirement of a poet to have this barbaric quality, this foreign quality? Sorry, I don’t have the exact page, but you mention “taking a creative, analytic and often oppositional stance, occupying […] foreignness — by the barbarism of strangeness.” Is that a requisite?
Hejinian: I would hesitate to make a rule that is either definitive of what it would be to be a poet or of the requirements for being a poet. But in my own experience, I advocate to myself, I ask myself to try to … The line that you are asking about is “wherever there are borders, there is barbarism.” It’s actually partly in reference to Bob Perelman’s The Marginalization of Poetry, and the notion that poets are on the margins of society. I wanted to suggest that instead of calling it a margin, one might call it a border, which sounds like a synonym for margin but isn’t. And then one can move that border to where it really exists, which is between things — like the border between Germany and France, or the border zone between Al Filreis and myself sitting at this table. Then, yet again, one might recast that notion of the border as a zone of encounter. And if it’s a zone of encounter along a border, everybody is a foreigner there.
So there’s all this negotiation to be undertaken, and you have to rethink your currency, either literally or metaphorically, and you’ve got to rethink your relationships. You’ve got to rethink your language because they might speak a different language at the border, or the people you meet might not understand your language, et cetera. And, of course, a kind of anti-nationalist position is implicit in one’s espousal of inhabiting border zones, a form of refusal of global capitalism: border zones instead of something that homogenizes everything. So, “barbarism” is actually a positive, affirmative concept.
I actually found instances … Edith Sitwell wrote a little essay about Gertrude Stein, saying there had never been a finer barbarian. And I can’t remember the other instances, but many appeared around the period of the First World War. There were a lot of Surrealists who spoke favorably about barbarians. I thought maybe we should recover that.
Lyn Hejinian with Al Filreis in 2005. Photo © Blake Martin.
Filreis: And also enable poetry after Auschwitz, rather than no poetry after Auschwitz.
Filreis: Thank you, Kerry. Jennifer has a question right here.
Jennifer Snead: I wanted to get back to what Al had asked about The Fatalist and your reply about the sturdy details as a detailed poetry: local, detailed, sturdy. And you mentioned Ron Silliman’s work, for you, as a place where details are observed, experienced, and contemplated in a non-passive way. I am really curious how that might relate, or maybe not, to what you say in “The Quest for Knowledge in the Western Poem,” where you talk about a “western way of knowing,” and description and the scientific method as being related. You mention Francis Bacon and the Novum Organum and The Advancement of Learning.
I’m interested more generally in description and where you think it does belong in contemporary poetics. And how does this description, as part of the scientific method, have anything to do with this sturdy detail as an answer to the lyric, or as a better way of thinking about lyric? Anyway, description, right? Question.
Hejinian: Yeah, that raises another example of a lyric poet of the sturdy detail, Lorine Niedecker. Many of her poems were intentionally, almost haiku-like descriptions with no commentary. And George Oppen, when writing Discrete Series, had attempted to write a poem without commentary. The only commentary in the poem is in the very first one, which is a prefatory poem, because it’s the second poem that’s numbered “1” of the series.
Okay, now I digress. What was the —
Oh, yes, the scientific —
Snead: About the western scientific method, about western modes of epistemology, and how description … because you seem to be a little less approving of that type of, or maybe more —
Hejinian: I am wary of it because I am so attracted to it.
Hejinian: And the western scientific method has had — as I say in that, I hope, comically titled essay “The Quest for Knowledge in the Western Poem” — rapacious effects, of course: the Age of Exploration, the Enlightenment, et cetera, ultimately led to imperialism and colonialism, and exploitation of the planet.
So, it’s important to be extremely cautious of one’s enthusiasm for it. But I will say that I have an enormous fascination with the annals of exploration and discovery, and admiration and appreciation for experimental science even today. I think that description, for a good scientist as for a good writer, is as much hermeneutic as narrative. That is, using language as a medium for exploring — you know, The Language of Inquiry is the name of the essay book. You don’t know what’s there until you start trying to describe it.
Another excellent example would be Gertrude Stein (Tender Buttons), who is exploring the nature of reality by attempting to find words that speak in and around whatever it is she’s looking at.
Filreis: And the earlier reference was to George Oppen’s first book Discrete Series, which you can get in the collected Oppen.
Hejinian: The new collected, I recommend. The New Directions New Collected Poems.
Filreis: Tom, we have an email question?
Thomas Devaney: This question is from Kenneth Sherwood, assistant professor of English at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
Devaney [reads]: Lyn, I’m curious about your ongoing My Life project. From the first, it’s been a kind of process work, but its readers received it in book-length instalments. For almost two years we’ve been able to follow the poem emerging on your blog. What is your interest in allowing readers to access it a sentence at a time? And does this also represent a shift in your compositional practice? Or, do you have ten sentences in reserve, which you will be posting over the rest of the week?
Hejinian: This is a splendid question. This is not my blog. Somebody else out there is putting a work of mine on the Internet, one sentence at a time.
It’s the closest I’ve ever felt to being stalked.
I find it unnerving, but not reprehensible. It’s a published work, and one sentence at a time … I probably would have legal grounds to sue or something, but I have no intention of doing something so childish as that. But I am happy that this is a webcast because I want to tell everybody who is listening: That is not my blog; Lyn Hejinian does not have a blog.
Filreis: This blog was not approved by Lyn Hejinian.
Hejinian: Well, it’s not approved by me at all.
Filreis: Well, thank you, Ken, for affording Lyn the opportunity to disclaim that blog.
We have a question in the back.
CAConrad: Hello. I saw you a few years ago at Villanova University. You gave a talk and a reading. Afterwards we were standing around this table eating carrots or something, and the discussion turned to politics at one point, and you seemed dismayed about younger poets and where they were politically. I disagreed with a lot of what you were saying back then, but that isn’t what I want to talk about or ask. I want to ask where you’re at in 2005: how do you feel about younger poets with their political center?
Hejinian: Did I? Those must have been poisonous carrots.
Filreis: They were sturdy and detailed carrots.
Hejinian: I don’t remember even feeling dismay over the younger poets.
It’s possible that poetry scenes, in given locales, have slumps and rises and slumps again, and I was witnessing what either was a slump in the poetry scene in the Bay area, or a slump in my interest in it. And in retrospect, probably the latter.
But in any case, maybe you know there was an issue of The Poetry Project Newsletter in which the then editors took a sentence of mine, a published comment, and a published comment of Ron Silliman’s and sent them to a number of poets. They were taken out of context in both cases. The way the editors phrased the question, it appeared that Ron Silliman and I felt that young poets were inadequately addressing the contemporary political climate. In fact, my comment in its original context, had nothing to do with younger poets or the political climate. It was on an entirely different subject. A number of young poets responded to this, and very shortly thereafter the attack on the World Trade Center towers occurred, and those younger poets proved not only that they were highly astute politically, but had already been thinking on a number of issues, which now had to be spoken, and people would listen to them. And I have nothing but respect for, you know, not every younger poet, nor every older poet, but I think something’s really happening. I think it’s hot right now. And really interesting. Lots of energy and courage.
Filreis: Thank you. Thanks for the question, Conrad.
Nick Montfort: I wanted to ask about the relationship between poetry and ordinary language, if that’s a good term for it. If it’s not, you can escort it out and bring in another one.
But one idea about the composition process of The Fatalist is that by this sort of panning for gold — this sifting through language for the particular things that are poetry in it — that therefore what merges from that process may not have a lot to say to the rest of language, to things that aren’t sturdy and detailed, as we like to say. That’s not at all the impression I get from reading your My Life. I think that there’s a rich relationship between other texts that we encounter in the world, other uses of language in poetry. But I wanted to ask you about how you would address their relationship.
Hejinian: That’s a difficult question to answer.
Your sense is — and I think rightly, but let me just make sure I understand the question correctly — that by virtue of the nature of the original, what I call the raw material from which The Fatalist was sculpted, that it was in ordinary language. And what have I done to make it unordinary?
To some degree, that work is built of phrases and composed at the level of phrase. The dynamism and energy comes from the juxtaposition of phrases either in the original, if I was clever that day and wrote a good letter or note or message and there was a long stretch that I kept, or by taking the beginning of something I wrote to one person and finding a phrase somewhere in something I wrote to another person and saw where their conjunction could bring out the texture of whatever was going on at that point.
In The Fatalist I was looking at the language of communication, the materiality of communication. There are other really terrific projects such as Kenny Goldsmith’s Soliloquy or Ed Freedman’s The Telephone Book, in which originally communicative language gets —
Filreis: And Nick Montfort has offered some alternatives himself.
Kathy Lou Schultz: I’m very interested in the terminology that is used and could be used in writing contemporary literary history, and some of the terms would be “Language” and “post-Language” poetry, also “experimental” and “innovative” are often used. And I’m wondering if you feel that those terms are useful and descriptive, and how we can begin to trace some of those lineages with the terminology that we use?
Hejinian: Well, I think that post-Language is particularly problematic because it anchors poets younger than my generation to only one area, when actually they have tendrils and roots in all kinds of other things, and not just poetry. I think that such labels are useful in conversation, or as a literary-critical or literary-historical marker. But I think they should be defined, and all kinds of definitions are out there to be used. In terms of literary history, I think much, much larger histories have to be described and much more complicated lineages have to be drawn.
In teaching, I have, a number of times, taught some version of a course that gets called something like “Recent and Contemporary Innovations in American Poetry.” I start further and further back each time, and not only pull from the Harlem Renaissance, but the experimental African American writers like Melvin Tolson, who I know you are interested in, and Julia Pritchard, another figure who people don’t study — writers who have gotten lost from maps like they are sunk into a reservoir or something.
I think the history of the last thirty years in poetry has not even been touched. It’s really complicated and far richer than the abbreviated, reductive attempts at history have suggested.
The terms “innovative” and “experimental,” and then the third one, “avant-garde” —
Filreis: Which Kathy Lou didn’t mention I don’t think.
Hejinian: Yeah, she didn’t, but that’s also one that gets thrown out.
I do find them useful. They can point to or remind us of the impulse and intention behind the composition, and also something of the character of the communities from which, and to which, the work is written.
Actually I find far more awkward the alternative: if X is innovative or experimental, and Y isn’t, what is Y?
[Disruption in recording.]
Filreis: Can I ask about another divider as a follow-up? You wrote some time ago, or said in an interview, that the Language movement, that Language writing is rigorously social, and in that sense set up against the romance of the solitary individualist poet. And that’s also roughly, sometimes very crudely, but sometimes a useful way of dividing contemporary poets. What is the opposite of rigorously social? I mean, a poetry or a poetics that’s set up against or distinct from that rigorously social way of preceding is very different and stands very differently, and can’t easily be reconciled. How would we describe that latter group: the group, or the poetics that’s against the rigorously social aspect of the Language movement?
Is there a way of characterizing that view — and it’s a strong view — or poets in that group?
Hejinian: I can’t think of any terms that aren’t negative. The self-commodifying poet? The star poet?
Filreis: If I were one of those, what would you say to me about my way of preceding? Because you disagree: you think that poetic communities need to be rigorously social, I think.
Hejinian: I’d tell you to start a magazine.
Filreis: And you mean that, you mean that seriously?
Filreis: You said that of you and your colleagues: so many people edited, and editing is a generous thing to be doing. So that wasn’t a laugh line. She meant it.
Devaney [reads]: From Jeffrey Julich. Miss Hejinian, in Barrett Watten’s recent book The Constructivist Moment, he reviews a 1999 Electronic Poetry Center discussion on your Writing as an Aid to Memory. That discussion centered on the truncated words that appeared throughout the book, and especially the word “deen”. D-E-E-N. Can you please say something about your use of truncated words and especially the significance of the word “deen”?
Hejinian: To those of you who don’t know about this conversation, in an early work of mine called Writing Is an Aid to Memory, it’s complicated, but among the phonemes or word-units that occur in it are a number of units that end up as either prefixes or, much more frequently, suffixes or word endings. As, for example, you would find if your computer hyphenates something, so that you get “tion” at the beginning of the next line. And there was a conversation on the Buffalo poetics list about one such word that appears in the work: D-E-E-N. Nobody could figure out what that was, what word that would be the end of. And I don’t know either.
I don’t remember how I came up with that word. I used these, what Jeffrey Julich is calling truncated words, because I wanted to give — you know, “writing as an aid to memory” — some sense of a level of language in which memory or the meaning is retroactive always. You know, things come along, and then you discover what they mean. So I wanted to show things coming into memory, or coming into meaning. So words not yet formed into their wholes. And that was the reason I used the truncated words.
Filreis: Thank you. Thank you, Jeffrey, for asking the question.
Jim Carpenter: Yeah, this is the left-field question. I have an interest in assessing the quality of computer programs, and am trying to develop a hypothesis that the problem with computer programming arises from the fact that we use engineering practices to construct them. They’re really compositional entities and we ought to be using literary practices. My question actually sprung from Nick’s question here, using poetic practice to engage natural language in ways to extract from that language, if I understand your response correctly, insights that the nature of that language obscures. You alluded to some tactical approaches there: rearranging words, extracting words, and so on. What I’m wondering, and I don’t expect you to be an expert in computer programming —
Hejinian: That’s good.
Carpenter: But it seems to me that there might be a generalization that one could make there, that in approaching different kinds of texts, and trying to make those texts give up their essence that they are trying to obscure, that there might be some general principles in poetic practice that one would use to engage texts that in other senses are unapproachable. So, is there, in your view, a set of resources there, or in poetic practice, that are generally valuable in engaging other kinds of literary practice?
Does my question make any sense from left field?
Lyn Hejinian at Kelly Writers House in 2005. Photo © Blake Martin.
Hejinian: Well, I like the question a lot. I model my compositional methods on what I think of as thought-methods, how thinking occurs.
Poetic language, how thinking in language occurs, in particular, and the logics that are operative in thought-language, whether it’s waking or sleeping thought — if dreams are thoughts of any kind, and I suppose they must be — the logics are numerous and not only linear or cause-and-effect logics, but all kinds of other logics, and all of them available, immanent in language. There are sound logics, montage logics, collage logics, et cetera. Associative logics, metonymic logics, metaphoric logics, and crazy illogics, which is a kind of logic.
I am virtually technophobic, but you know, I think bridges must think in some way, or be thoughtful constructs. Not to anthropomorphize bridges, but when I think of engineering, I think of bridges, probably because there is scandal going on about the San Francisco Bay Bridge, ever since the earthquake. They can’t seem to build a replacement that’s going to be earthquake-proof.
This isn’t helpful, but I’m just thinking. I can’t help you, I guess.
Devaney: Lyn, you’ve talked about encouraging Al and other young poets to start a magazine, and you’ve published people and have been published by your friends. When you edited the Best American Poetry this past year, did you feel that was kind of a gesture in that way?
Filreis: Was it rigorously social?
Hejinian: It was rigorously educational.
And yeah, I agreed to guest-edit that anthology in order to make sure that, you know … Best American Poetry is marketed to the general public, and the general public buys those volumes. I think the principle reason I agreed to edit the Best American Poetry 2004 was because I had a couple of my very best undergraduates say that one of those volumes had been their very first book of poetry. There are problems with any kind of “best” series, and I tried to address some of those problems in the introduction that I wrote for the one that I edited in particular. I wanted to celebrate the writing of poetry in the current political milieu, and I wanted a volume that read as a really terrific book full of challenges and liveliness and risk-taking and daring and vivacity. I thought I could do such a thing, and I think I did it. I really like that book. I thought I would be embarrassed when it was revealed that I was editing such a mainstream publication, but I’m really glad I did it. I’m sure there are many faults with it, and many people can find fault with me for doing it, but I’m glad I did it. And I think there’s a lot of really terrific poetry in there. And it’s not all the “best” poetry that was written in a given year. I didn’t even read all the poetry that was published in a given year. But I read a lot of it. And the works I selected struck me as together making an interesting book. So yeah, I don’t know if it was rigorously social, but it was certainly in line with what I’ve tried to do as an editor of Poetics Journal and Tuumba Press and Atelos, and what I try to do even in a syllabus for a course.
Filreis: How widely distributed has the book been? How many copies were sold?
Hejinian: I don’t know. I think something like 20,000 gets sold in a typical year.
Filreis: And a Tuumba Press book sells how many?
Hejinian: Well, Tuumba Press is just for special projects right now. But Atelos, there are two books that have gone into second printings, so they sold out a thousand copies. One is Pamela Lu’s book called Pamela: A Novel and the other is Barrett Watten’s Bad History. Both have been adopted for courses, which is the secret to selling books in large numbers. Yeah, like My Life, you know, everybody says, “Oh, we got that in freshman year.”
But a typical Atelos book sells around 300 copies.
Filreis: So 20,000 is an awful lot?
Hejinian: It’s a lot. Allen Ginsberg’s Collected Poems I think sold 10,000.
So, when you think of the per capita percentage of buyers of Allen Ginsberg’s Collected Poems, it’s tiny.
Speaker: My question is kind of murky, but hopefully it will muddle around in there.
At the reading last night, you were reading from that piece “Scheherazade,” or the thousand-eyes pieces. I was just noticing — maybe this relates to the other question, too, in terms of the way you were talking about The Fatalist as a phrase-based work very much in the realm of the sentence — how much My Life or even Happily has a lot of, say, aphorism or punning or work in homonyms, different things like that, but that doesn’t seem to be the point of highlight. For example, a lot of it is about how the syntax is juxtaposing the work in there. There was something noticeable about how much rhyme play was happening, how much word play in a lot of those “Scheherazade” pieces that seemed like this really was the highlight: this kind of intense word play that was taking place.
So I was wondering if there is a different work with language that is happening in that one, for you, that moves away from the sentence. I don’t know what the split would be, I just wondered if you could speak to that work particularly and what that has offered, et cetera.
Hejinian: You know that the Arabian Nights stories are all things told at night, and initially I wanted to write a work of a thousand poems, or a work of a thousand pieces (although a poem could be one word long). And I wanted it to be night, somehow related to night by being the kinds of things that want, okay, night language. So it could be insomniac, fretting. Or I talk a lot in my head at night and say things that I have no idea where they came from, just phrases. I am suddenly aware that phrases happen. But also lullabies, nursery rhymes, little fairy tales, et cetera. I had just been inventing all of those.
I read Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno, which is a lesser known work, and there are some amazing, intelligent, hilarious poems in that. The structures are really funny. I appropriated quite a lot of the rhythms of it. There’s one: “I thought I saw a da da da,” but it turned out to be something completely different. Once you get going on those, you can hardly stop. I thought I saw a tender child eating a warm waffle. Then I saw it was a rat shitting something awful. You could just go on and on.
The book includes works that are like little essays, as if thinking through something at night. But basically I think that night thoughts occur much more in phrases than in sentences. Or perhaps they are sentences that just run on and on and on and on and keep changing subject manner.
[Short gap in recording.]
Kim Lasky: I was also reading your essay on barbarism this morning —
Filreis: Barbarism first thing in the morning?
Lasky: I know, yeah. Well, I couldn’t sleep, so I was awake early.
One of the things you say in that is that one of the impulses for the so-called Language movement was the idea that poetry and practice aren’t antithetical. Practice and theory, sorry, are not antithetical. I was just wondering if you can say something about what you think poetry has to offer to critical thinking and to critical language, and also vice versa? How the two can kind of work together in shared space maybe?
Hejinian: Good critical or literary theoretical writing, at its very best, works around what I would call synthetic moments, when a connection is made between one thing and another. That moment of connection is a moment of incredibly powerful insight or luminosity, and it casts lights on all kinds of other things.
Barrett Watten’s A Constructivist Moment is a compendium of synthetic moments. I mean he’s just a brilliant thinker, and a brilliant critical writer. He puts together in the essays, or the chapters of that book, the most unlikely things. Zizek is another person who uses the most unlikely examples to elucidate some very difficult, say Lacanian, term. I think that is exemplary of what poetic writing does. Poetry is both resilient and revelatory precisely because of linkages: the way the linkages are made, the kinds of things that are linked together.
At Berkeley, where I teach, there is no MFA program, but there are a number of poets among the students, grad students and undergrads both. We pretty much all feel that it is extremely beneficial that the two activities are interdependent, and that the kinds of originality and inventiveness that are required by poetry are also required by good scholarship. And the kind of rigorousness that’s necessary for good scholarship is absolutely necessary for good poetry.
Poetry, to my mind, is not anti-intellectual sloppiness. It’s really hard thinking. Maybe that’s why it’s sturdy and detailed. I mean, I think of Al, whose work has been an inspiration to me. And he does unbelievably meticulous archival research and comes up with plethoras of detail. When you put them together, you have this enormous cultural map, or a portrait of a cultural moment, and with perspectival lines running through it, and counter-perspectives. It’s really rich.
Filreis: We’re selling copies of my book …
Lyn, this is the perfect set-up for a question that I’ve had. We talked a little about it yesterday. We were imagining an annotated Zukofsky, and, of course, people over the years have done a great job of really figuring out that sturdy, detailed, contextual associativeness with The Cantos of Ezra Pound. And half-jokingly, but maybe not so jokingly, one imagines an annotated My Life. Those of you who have read My Life know that it’s not as densely allusive as The Cantos, but there are quotes that could be found. This is sort of along the lines of the researcher/scholar/sleuth that was your response to Kim’s question. Being the scholar you just described, as I was reading about your babysitting for Susanne Langer’s children, I got my old copy of Philosophy in a New Key out, a 1942 book that Lyn must have. I assume, you must have encountered it, either in that time you were babysitting the kids —
Hejinian: It was actually their grandchildren.
Filreis: The grandchildren. And then you moved to a reference of a book I had never heard of: Charles William Beebe’s book about going down several miles under the ocean in a bathysphere called Half Mile Down. I think we said it was two miles down, but a half mile is still long. And she refers to the book, does anybody remember it in My Life? “As when I read” — I love sentences in My Life that begin with that — “As when I read in Charles William Beebe’s account of his descent a half-mile down deep in a bathysphere the transcribed rapture, the rapture of units — and phrases are units.” So I went and read this book. This is the library’s only copy of it, and, indeed, I found language in it that is so rapturous. Partly because, I guess, when you go far enough down in a bathysphere you begin writing like a Language poet. This guy was no Language poet, but there’s a picture of, ripped unfortunately, a picture of a bluefish darting around by the bathysphere, and this is a scientific work, a descriptive work, the line is: “The green water rained blue parrotfish.” Very poetic.
So, I felt, maybe stupidly, very gratified. I felt like I was doing a scholar’s work reading this book. So I guess my silly setup question is, assuming that was a good thing to do, because I have now read a book that you read —
Hejinian: And now you’ve spoken about it in a webcast.
Filreis: It’s now part of the record.
Hejinian: I believe there’s just been a revival of interest in the work of Charles William Beebe. And I believe that this book is being reprinted, and I think maybe by the New York Times —
Filreis: That’s hard to believe —
Hejinian: I mean, by the New York Review of Books.
Off-Mic: That series they do on lost classics?
Hejinian: I think that this is an upcoming volume in that series. I could be wrong.
Filreis: But aside from that fact, that now not more than two people have read the book, and maybe others will read it, is this a worthwhile — thinking of Kim’s question — thing for somebody to be doing? A reader, a scholar? Is this at all helpful — I can’t think of a better word than helpful — in understanding My Life? Do I have a little something now I can say about, other than the ridiculous annotation, is this something that the allusiveness suggests? It doesn’t demand it, it doesn’t require it, but is this good, is it okay, is it helpful? Should we all be following the leads of a great book like this? And that was a bad way to end a series of questions.
Hejinian: I don’t think it’s required. I hope it’s not necessary. It had never occurred to me that anyone would undertake it, but why not?
But don’t ask me for help. No, I’m only joking.
Filreis: I know you are.
Hejinian: I think the result of that kind of research is a fascinating document of cultural studies. There’s another essay in The Language of Inquiry called “Reason,” it’s about reasoning the logics of poetic language, but also reason in the sense of why you do something. So, it’s about motivation and strategy, let’s say. But I hope with more resonance than that. That sounded a little bit reductive.
Anyway, it’s very difficult for me to write essays, and I fret a lot in the course, working on them, and the phrase “[a]long comes something — launched in context” came into my weary brain. It set off a long trajectory. I actually am still using that “along comes” phrase in various ways, because it happens all the time. You know, along comes a dog. It came from somewhere. It’s got its doggy business on its mind. It’s got its context. It’s launched out of a context, it’s into yours, it’s going on to another one, and all of that stuff totally interests me. And I feel it really is kind of the rich fabric of experience. It’s all the stuff that is coming along. And it’s happening. And you want to, I’ve said this before, but you don’t want to go through life not being aware that this is happening.
So, in a sense, all the stuff that is happening and that those sentences erupt from, or point to, or instigate … maybe a project would be totally great that would —
Filreis: This is the happiness of Happily in a way.
Dan Blanchard: This is a very pointed question because I’m a —
Filreis: Poignant or pointed?
Towards the end of My Life, there are two lines, the first is: “Many versions of aspiration … like Russia.” And the second is: “I had returned from Russia banal with shock-value. Tak. And borrowed a phrase to say that the mechanics of perception turn psychology into aesthetics.”
First, I just really love how you used “tak” there. I’ve taken Russian, and the “so much” versus “the pause of a thought.” And then second, I was wondering why you chose Russia, and what about your experience there made it important enough to speak to it in this kind of setting? Is it the contrast between the western thought process, like what Jen was talking about earlier, and Russia being a kind of eastern orthodox different way of looking at it, or — ?
Hejinian: All of those things.
It was the political other. It was the enemy. The first time I went there it was a very cold time of the Cold War, 1983. And I went back repeatedly. Also, the absolute randomness of my going there in the first place. There is nothing to suggest any trajectory in my past that would send me to Russia. But my husband, who is a musician, received a fan letter from what claimed to be the Leningrad Contemporary Music Society, and they said they had voted him the number one musician of the twentieth century.
Filreis: No kidding?
Hejinian: Well, there were only three members, as we discovered when we got there. They had gone out and bought a recording of his on the black market, and they had drunk a lot of vodka, and they had a vote and it was unanimous.
And they wrote him a fan letter. He wrote back and said he would try to raise money. They wanted him to come there to give a lecture, and he didn’t want to do that, but said he would bring the quartet that he plays with, Rova Saxophone Quartet. It took two years to raise the money because he thought Pepsi-Cola or Coca-Cola would give money because, you know, youth culture. Those companies didn’t want to have anything to do with it. So, it took two years to raise the travel money through benefit concerts and borrowing money from family and various ways. And he organized a group to travel with Rova, a few people who would pay their way plus a little bit more. They all knew they were paying a little bit more, but for the benefit of going to Russia in a context in which they would actually meet people and see the underground cultural scene, and so forth. They were happy to do so. Stephen Rodefer was on that trip, as was George and Lucy Mattingly, two video artists, a music critic and composer named Charles Shere, and me. The context had nothing to do with me, but there I was, thrown into the middle of the avant-garde underground, bohemian underground with refusenik mathematicians, and painters, and linguists working on shamanistic practices in Karelia, which is the vast region of marshlands above Leningrad (or, now, St. Petersburg). It was just totally amazing. I fell madly in love with it. And why does anyone fall in love with something, who knows?
Then I learned Russian and did a lot of translations. It was a vibrant part of my intellectual, cultural, and emotional life for a long time, and remains so, although now in a much muted sense. But the poet whose work I translated, Arkady Dragomoshchenko, still lives in Saint Petersburg, and I’m still in touch with him and his wife quite regularly and passionately I guess I would say.
Filreis: Lyn, I wonder if we could conclude by asking you to read a passage from The Fatalist?
Hejinian: Of course.
Filreis: We were all, the students and I, were struck by this. This is the section about a person you name R, and R writes letters, which is interesting because the book is all about you writing. Here’s a person who herself writes and she seems to write to talk to those who survive her. And it’s a section on the bottom of 23, through 24.
So, here’s Lyn Hejinian reading from The Fatalist.
Filreis: Lyn Hejinian, thank you very much.