Alligators, Hendrix, lightning storms, and the Mister-ssippi

Tales of friendship and art from the road

Lyn Hejinian and Travis Ortiz in 1996.
Lyn Hejinian and Travis Ortiz in 1996. Photo by Katy Lederer.

One of my fondest memories from my long friendship with Lyn Hejinian is a westward cross-country drive across the southern United States together. It was the spring of 1996, and Lyn had just completed a semester teaching at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Her husband, the composer and saxophonist Larry Ochs, was on tour in Europe and was not available to help with the driving. Lyn asked me if I could make the drive with her. 

Once her teaching duties concluded, I flew out from Oakland. Our plan was loose. We’d drive along the southern route back to Berkeley, and we’d take our time. We’d stop at nature preserves to bird watch and view the local alligators, we’d see the Mississippi River, we’d visit the Carlsbad Caverns, we’d read Alice in Wonderland together at stops along the way. 

Once I arrived, Lyn was packed and ready to hit the road. The next morning we stopped off at the local record store to buy CDs for the drive. I remember we bought Janis Joplin’s 18 Essential Songs, Electric Ladyland by The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and Tricky’s Maxinquaye. The drive contained lots of music from every genre imaginable and, of course, hours and hours of conversations. Road trips can be amazing catalysts for conversations that can meander and wind along with the countless hours on the road. We spoke about tactics for approaching a regular writing practice and how to integrate it into one’s quotidian experience. We talked about the experimental poetry we were seeing emerge in the Bay Area. The writing we were most excited about hovered on borders and challenged them, refusing to accept traditional genre categories. The work, and those writing it, needed a means to reach a wider audience. We spoke about how Atelos, our newly founded publishing project, would help to foster this work. 

Thinking about the drive triggers distinct memories. I remember stopping on the side of the road to photograph the hand-painted signs that populated the Cross Garden in Prattville, Alabama. Hundreds of signs tacked on crosses and painted on rusted-out cars and sides of buildings read, “Jesus saves,” “Sin in hell Sex,” “All is welcome. Jews. and. Gentiles. Here. At. Margaret’s Gro & Mkt and Bible Class,” and “keep out.”

I remember the most intense rain storm I’ve ever been in. At one point we had to stop in the middle of the road because our visibility was so obscured it wasn’t safe for driving. That storm produced the most intense lightning and thunder, the lightning stretching and splintering across the sky while the thunder immediately followed, rumbling the ground. It was so intense. We laughed at the absurdity of the experience, and we both photographed the lightning bolts. 

We stopped on the side of the Mississippi River to hike along the water and gaze across the expanse of it. At one point, we ran into a family who were idling the day away on the banks. The father in the group kept repeating phrases to us like, “That sure is a humongous amount of water,” and, “That there river is the father of all rivers.” As we walked away I whispered to Lyn, “If that’s the father of all rivers, then they should have named it the Mister-ssippi!” More laughing ensued. 

Another memory that is sparked as I reflect on this trip was the stop we made at William Faulkner’s house in Oxford, Mississippi. What I recall is not the tour of the house itself, but the time that we spent in Faulkner’s garden. We ate lunch and took turns reading Alice in Wonderland aloud to each other. It was sunny and warm, and cardinals darted in and out of the scene the whole time. 

After arriving back in Berkeley we began working together on the Atelos Publishing Project in earnest. Atelos was hatched in 1995, before Lyn left for Alabama, during a walk from class on the UC Berkeley campus to Cafe Milano, to engage in what our band of students and writers called the “Milano Discussions.” These were an informal series of continuing conversations that were started in the class Lyn was teaching at the time. The topics often revolved around the emerging genre-bending works and the poets who wrote them, and these conversations were what inspired Lyn and I to start a commission-only publishing project together. 

We agreed that our goal was to publish, under the sign of poetry, writing that challenges conventional, limiting definitions of poetry. The series would end after 50 commissioned books. In our invitation letters we asked writers to compose a manuscript specifically for the project that in some way (their choice) crossed traditional genre boundaries. 

Our first book, The Literal World by Jean Day, was published in 1998. In January, we released Astrid Lorange’s book Raw Materials. It’s book #45 in the series. We have five more books to complete the project. Earlier this year, during a completely different kind of discussion, Lyn expressed relief that I would carry Atelos to its conclusion. It won’t be the same without her, but I hope I have learned something from her tireless efforts and dedication to the project and to our writers. Completing the series is the least I can do.  

I'm incredibly grateful to Lyn for her generous support and guidance during my journey from a young, uncertain writer to a more assured thinker and poet. Throughout, she's been an unwavering friend and invaluable collaborator. Words cannot fully capture the depth of my appreciation and affection for Lyn.