Against the preemptive present

Some things I learned about time, space, and school from Lyn Hejinian

Lyn Hejinian and Jennifer Scappettone. Photo by Joshua Stein.

I met Lyn Hejinian nearly a quarter of a century ago — a way of casting that moment that smacks of the pompous and arbitrary divisions of history in a way I hear her answering to, but which marks aptly the distance between what seemed, to young me, the all-worlds-possible-in-Berkeley beginning of the millennium and the current time, with its beginnings in the second Gulf War, and its most recent manifestations, to which California exposes itself as cruelly unexempt (gash between the poor and ever richer; neofascism increasing in volume; recessions of safety for the colonized, the pregnant, the polluted, the flooded or thirsty; and, more to the point, a virus of riot cops on campuses). I wish I could talk to Lyn about it all (again) and ask her (again?) how she kept going notwithstanding so many disappointments and backlashes. 

But gloom is no way to begin a memory of Lyn, who while being as un-akin to my family as possible in illustrious education, shares with them a Neapolitan capacity to slingshot laughter into tragedy. In that laughter resides survival and, at times, seditious power.

“I think, the Nightingale Girl said to the Singing Man / That time requires anecdotes to contradict it / No answer / Time longs undividedly for something / We’ll wait” . . . (A Border Comedy, 1997). Our first meeting beyond the walls of Wheeler Hall was in Tilden Park; that day we rode a merry-go-round. Half my life — the gnarly adult half — has been graced by the almost unimaginable gift of Lyn’s kaleidoscopic friendship and mind as teacher and north star. 

One of Lyn’s first emails to me came in July of 2001, shortly after Berkeley hired her (to their credit — they listened to me, a twentysomething, complaining that Thom Gunn had left a chasm that deserved to be filled). I was starting up a poetry and poetics/potluck/dance party series with to-be-Holloway Poet Joshua Clover off campus, at the Josephine Miles House, and wanted to know if our choices would overlap with those of the Holloway Series. She wrote in words that seem historic now, 

I think it is great that you are organizing a series of colloquia. It seems to me that the moment might have arrived when, with collaborative energy and lots of persistence (not to mention insistence), we could make the Berkeley campus the site of a real literary scene. It wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) evolve into a school or movement, except to the degree that it might explicitly advocate for ongoing discussions of contemporary poetics (and all that the term poetics might include). I would like to see some challenges to the position that views poetry as inspired rather than thought. According to this view, what is valuable in a poem is its “authenticity,” with that authenticity being “guaranteed” by the non-intellectual state, perhaps even the stupidity, of the poet. I would love to establish a site in which intellectual work and aesthetic practice could be seen as simultaneous, interrelated, and evident in the work both of poets and of scholars. 

Does this in any way coincide with your aspirations? I’m assuming that it 
does, although of course you would phrase yours in other ways.

It did coincide. Lyn and Leslie Scalapino would be the first to read in that forum, from Hearing, published only many years later by Litmus, after Leslie was gone. It all unfolded prior to the days in which everyone was documenting and being listened to by devices, and there’s little trace of those heady and bodily summits at the Miles House except in flawed memory. Email correspondence with Lyn reminds me that we spoke on the phone about what would happen that day in response to our question (pre-9/11, gasp) about “the future of American poetics,” and that she and Leslie planned to address this future by talking about the present. 

“The regime toppled / Having been betrayed / Which, however, far from casting us into the tormented silence of a guilt-ridden venture / Produces clamor—music—mooing, hooting / Hisses cracking from the interior of objects, putting all that’s private at risk” . . . (A Border Comedy, 1997). The rest of my time at Berkeley, and the beginning of my “being a poet” as an insistent and collaborative and self-made practice rather than a practice of waiting, in isolation, for inspiration and validation, would be defined externally by what I eventually (in writing interbraided with writing by Judith Goldman) called the “preemptive present” of the so-called war on terrorism. My memory of George W. Bush being elected consists, mercifully, of running into Lyn in the hallway the next morning and, lacking any words for the offense, of an ardent, last-ditch hug of solidarity; a lot of the preceding and subsequent dreck has since been eclipsed in memory by new and improved apparitions of reactionary politics. That last-ditch solidarity would be a spine however not only of staying sane, but of seeking through poetry a means of pulling to pieces the language of authority. I was in a moment, in those days, of rejecting the intense presentism of US culture for the lessons of history. Ten years later, from the mounting hellscape of the social media “community,” I would pivot to teaching the present moment and learn from Lyn all over again.

“Memory cannot, though the future return, and proffer raw confusions” . . . (Writing is an Aid to Memory, 1978). The bulk of my graduate education took place in the extracurricular laboratories in writing and reading that Lyn spearheaded, creating community where previously there was merely an academy. As a seminar we listened to the entirety of Four Saints in Three Acts, Gertrude Stein’s opera with Virgil Thomson, without intermission, from the at once freewheeling and, I still recall, athletically ascetic perch of a circle of wooden chairs in Lyn and Larry’s dining room. As a workshop we wrote into the evening to the disruptions of the radio dial, to delicious bibliomantic randomness. As a tiny cell of friends we wandered through the iron trash of the Santa Cruz Mountains revisiting landscapes for Lola. As reading groups we read Capital, The Logic of Sense, and the entirety of Louis Zukofsky’s “A” to the taste of the cheapest available wine at a local bar or of Lyn’s fresh-baked bread. I continued to learn of and from Lyn’s reading groups — in Latin, in Whitehead, in Nietzsche, et cetera — with an upstart’s starry eyes from afar, through her letters and our sporadic live reunions. 

“Incessant knowledge and the natural sciences of difficulty, brilliance, complexity, and generosity” . . . (Writing is an Aid to Memory, 1978). These experiences are the dominant strains of grad school that I continue to carry into my books and classrooms. I thought at the time that such gatherings were endemic to Berkeley as an institution, one I signed up for with dreams of immersion in a luscious soup of outcasts and radicals, but I realized only slowly and sorrowfully (to the tune of succeeding episodes of occupation, as well as my own occupation of the sometimes dubious privilege of working on a college campus) how naïve a notion mine was. Institutions as structures — if not, happily, their student bodies — hardly know from lusciousness, outcastness, or radicalism, as many of our best poets and pedagogues have pointed out, and as is obvious from tuning into this week’s livestreams. I sobered up eventually and with the most devastating finality upon her exit from the planet as we know it to the fact that these congregations were endemic to the way Lyn and comrades lived the life of language as co-thinking, unpoliced, wandering outside the gates, and resolutely counter-hierarchical in character, though discerning, critical, and site-specific (rather than being content with the usual blathering of prefabricated abstractions) — and that these practices, already described in greater detail by fellow members of this intellectual family of sorts (another of her creations) in this forum, are vulnerable to her disappearance. 

“Time is filled with beginners. You are right. Now / each of them is working on something / and it matters” . . . (The Fatalist, 2003). Lyn’s autodidactic training as a “cleaning lady” in a rural California print shop, learning typesetting informally through friends Johanna Drucker and Kathy Walkup, and her founding of the 50-pamphlet Tuumba Press in the late 1970s is a keystone of what I learned from her, since it demonstrates that writing as shared invents a world. This world is not a private one, as is often presumed, but a vagrant fellowship, one that can undercut the sycophancy and politesse that dominate relations within elite institutions, making of the underdog a hero, comedienne, or genius. “It was a solo venture in that I had no partner(s) or assistant(s) but it was not a private nor a solitary one; I had come to realize that poetry exists not in isolation (alone on its lonely page) but in transit, as experience, in the social worlds of people.” Modeling for students how to make their own books and presses — how to forge the language(s), form(s), and world(s) in which their ideas make sense, rather than waiting for the apparent world’s authorities to catch up — is one of the most joy-provoking elements of my vocation as a teacher. In the city where Harriet Monroe’s little magazine devolved into lethargic convention and became overnight a blockish foundation possessing all kinds of big-pharma capital, it is salutary to remind young writers that “Jack Spicer once said that he wouldn’t submit any of his poems to Poetry magazine because he didn’t believe in the kind of society imagined in its works.” Lyn and Christopher Patrick Miller included that fact in their call for Floor magazine, one of the many collaborative publishing endeavors that followed Tuumba involving younger generations of students as equals, co-pilots. Perhaps worlding has become a cliché; that doesn’t mean it’s easy to embody independent, rhizomatic thinking in a sphere of donors with their own ideas, of glittering prizes and positions — the sole tethers against which many young people in the West with a love of language and thought are taught to measure their value. 

“My address is pathos and my goal / is to follow myself into the present / and restore to the political a capacity for ambivalence and quandary as sharp / (And as beneficial) as acupuncture” . . . (The Fatalist, 2003). In that vein, Lyn’s commissioning my second book, with Travis Ortiz, under the Atelos imprint, which is devoted to poetry that challenges conventional definitions of the genre, a-teleologically, “since such definitions have tended to isolate poetry from intellectual life, arrest its development, and curtail its impact,” was a pivotal bequest, clearing space for me as a young writer to continue making almost unpublishable work, then publishing it despite its material complexity and expense. The invitation to be part of that series, encompassing so many of my most esteemed writers, constituted a promise, on their part and on mine, that I would continue to devote myself to poetry beyond my first book despite the countervailing demands of my job, since the writing that would emerge from the process of being up to the task not only had a destination, but was called (within reason — a reason it perhaps exceeded) into carving out its own genre and form. The preciousness of this commission is rendered the starker now that The Republic of Exit 43 is nearly out of print, and that Atelos and allied independent presses have catastrophically lost their distributor and in many instances their stock. How will we as a collective pick up the pieces and continue their life’s work?

“Abridgement is foolish, like a lopping off among miracles” . . . (Writing is an Aid to Memory, 1978). Something rises up in me to revolt against the idea of extracting lessons from this teacher; it was her live presence that committed to meaning as co-creation. There wasn’t really a life event in which Lyn didn’t offer sustenance patiently and with love as compass, from the ongoing refusal to obey the dictum to front-load my work’s “payoffs” or to become “a bitter academic,” to the pleasures of marriage, or the terror of waiting rooms within which Lyn emerged as the beacon at the other end of the line. When my father passed away, she pointed out that he was with me everywhere now. When Etel passed away, she narrated for me the scattering of her ashes — how she almost applauded at the beautiful force of the throw. When I was rejected, she would remind me it was a sign I hadn’t sold out. 

“‘Deathlessness’ immediately invokes the ‘breathlessness’ we thought / we’d half heard in the panting of deathlessness whose dashing / is life” . . . (The Fatalist, 2003). On the corporate platform for grief I captioned a photo of us on campus from five years ago standing back to back, laughing about being backpack twins I recall, with the following: “one of the moments stalled drawn from escapades with my teacher and dear friend and mentor Lyn Hejinian, whose presence at whatever distance rendered me coherent (if still difficult) in ways unthinkable now, against the backcloth of her stunning absence from the planet.” The utter disorientation with which body and consciousness received Lyn’s transition into another form, in spite of what I retroactively, of a sudden, understood as years of her preparing me (and herself) for the baffling fate, also brought home this fact for me: that through her I had been infused with the liberty to be “myself” in all its forms notwithstanding the world’s capacity or incapacity to get them or me; her very presence on earth ensured that I made sense. Moreover, it ensured that I should keep making sense. Had I only remembered in the moments when disillusioned by the careerists and trivialities of a society of “content management” I could have been at peace, for that one restless mind on the other end of the line was enough. Perhaps that’s what it means to be a great teacher: to be devoted enough to conversation to listen, to draw out the coherence in the Rube Goldberg machine of each beginner’s mind, each element an excitement, and to reflect that back, in what is ultimately an open, endless co-constitution of consciousness.

“Knowledge is part of the whole, as hope is, from which love seeks to contrast knowledge with separation, and certainty with the temporal” . . . (Writing is an Aid to Memory, 1978). How wide is a person, I wonder from the top of Elysian Park; is it possible now she’s vaster, calling as the great horned owl at Griffith the evening before, on Etel’s 99th birthday, circling as the hawk of Sunset Boulevard in the mornings after. In November 2022, during what was probably the hardest month of my life, when Lyn was one of exceedingly few buoys keeping me afloat, she wrote to me of emotional fortitude in a way that proceeded to dissolve the definition of what self is — or rather, that reconstituted self as communicative space, the space between two people. 

Mine is bolstered by an incredible talent for denial, or something akin to it. Maybe it’s a talent for self-objectification and then dismissal. Or, to put that another way, a talent for assessing my physical circumstances and then situating those as external and other, after which I can “return” to who “I” “really” “am.” And what is that? At the moment “I” “am” a mind in a zone/space that includes this room in Berkeley (with a view northward over our small backyard and the roof of an apartment building to the crest of a hill lined with trees; at the moment the trees are murky brown and dark dusty green) and the room in Chicago that you are in and all the space between, which is compressed into a “moment” — this one.

Well, that probably doesn’t make much sense. I had to squint to come up with it.

It did make sense. It created of the much-mourned distance between us, across which friendship had continued to course, a radiant presence where a moment before I could only perceive the absence.

“…the poet must assume a barbarian position, taking a creative, analytic, and often oppositional stance, occupying (and being occupied by) foreignness — by the barbarism of strangeness” . . . (“Barbarism,” from The Language of Inquiry, 1995). She has been canonized and to some extent her strangeness absorbed by mainstream letters, but Lyn remained true to trenchant difficulty that yet possesses a levity — to the insurgent questions of theory unfolding in long form over the longue durée amidst a boiling ocean of hot takes. How I wish that those who always have a Mary Oliver at the ready would read Positions of the Sun. The day before she left this realm, anticipating the unthinkable, I said to several friends I couldn’t bear to give up the role of student for teacher, but mused off the cuff that I learned the same week I’d been nominated for a teaching award, so perhaps was ready to take the baton. My friend Rossen said, “you’ve clearly already taken it.” 

“Necessity is the limit with forgetfulness, but it remains undefined. Memory is the girth, or again” . . .  (Writing is an Aid to Memory, 1978). Lyn knows how much I hate the news cycle yet also modeled a way into writing as improvisation that lasts — so I force my way out of extended stupor to add to this hasty, loving chorus. 

Jennifer Scappettone
February, then May 2024