Lyn Hejinian (1941–2024): An obituary by Lytle Shaw

Photo by Gloria Graham.

Lyn Hejinian, American poet and essayist, died on Saturday, February 24. Born Carolyn Frances Hall on May 17, 1941, and raised in Berkeley and later Cambridge, Massachusetts, she graduated from Harvard University in 1963. Her children, Paull and Anna, were born while she was married to the physician John Hejinian. After her divorce, Hejinian eventually partnered up with the jazz saxophonist Larry Ochs, living from 1972 to 1977 nine miles north of Willits, California, on eighty acres of rural property that she referred to as “the land.” There in 1976 she acquired a Vandercook letterpress, taught herself typesetting, and began editing Tuumba Press, which, especially after her return to Berkeley in 1977, put her in touch with her peers in the poetry world. The Tuumba series included books by poets that, like Hejinian herself, would come to be associated with Language writing, including Carla Harryman, Rae Armantrout, Bruce Andrews, Charles Bernstein, Kit Robinson, Ron Silliman, and Barrett Watten. Hejinian’s own poetry also began to appear at this time: A Thought is the Bride of What Thinking (Tuumba, 1976), A Mask of Motion (Burning Deck, 1977), Gesualdo (Tuumba, 1978), and Writing is an Aid to Memory (The Figures, 1978). But her work gained attention in particular with the two editions of My Life (Burning Deck, 1980, and Sun and Moon, 1987), a book that at once exploded many of the conventions of the genre of autobiography and developed an innovative poetics of everyday life. The 1980 version of My Life, written when Hejinian was thirty-seven years old, included thirty-seven sections, each comprised of thirty-seven sentences; the 1987 version added eight sections and also eight sentences to each of the previous sections. 

While discussion of My Life has been central to Hejinian’s reception history, her poetry and poetics transformed substantially afterwards. In the 1980s Hejinian taught herself Russian as a way to establish a direct dialogue with poets in the Soviet Union. This led to her translations of Arkadii Dragomoschenko and to her books Leningrad (with Michael Davidson, Ron Silliman, and Barrett Watten) and Oxota: A Short Russian Novel (1991). Other books from this period include The Cell (1992) and The Cold of Poetry (1994). In the first decade of the twenty-first century Hejinian published a series of shorter works — The Beginner (Tuumba, 2002), Slowly (Tuumba, 2002), The Fatalist (Omnidawn, 2003), My Life in the Nineties (Shark, 2003) — as well as the longer book, A Border Comedy (2001), which Hejinian considered her most important work. Hejinian’s more recent poetry books include The Unfollowing (Omnidawn, 2016), Positions of the Sun (Belladona, 2018), and Tribunal (Omnidawn, 2019).

Hejinian’s writings and editing in the field of poetics have had an enormous impact on contemporary poetry. From 1982 to 1998 she coedited Poetics Journal with Barrett Watten. In ten thematically organized issues (including Poetry and Philosophy, Women and Language, Knowledge, and The Person), Poetics Journal included key writings both by the main figures associated with Language writing and by others including Kathy Acker, Pierre Alferi, Robert Glück, Johanna Drucker, Félix Guattari, and John Zorn. A Guide to Poetics Journal was published by Wesleyan in 2013, with substantial commentaries both by Hejinian and by Watten. She also participated in the ten-volume The Grand Piano: An Experiment in Collective Autobiography (2006–10), a work on and by San Francisco Language writers.

Hejinian’s 1983 essay “The Rejection of Closure” became a frequently cited statement in poetics, and was reprinted in her influential collection The Language of Inquiry (University of California, 2000) which also included her writings on Gertrude Stein, social formations in poetry, and Enlightenment empiricism and exploration. Many of her later essays on poetics have been included in Allegorical Moments: Call to the Everyday (Wesleyan, 2023).

In 1995, with Travis Ortiz, Hejinian began coediting Atelos, a book series in which forty-three of the fifty planned volumes have appeared, including works by Pamela Lu, Renee Gladman, Lytle Shaw, Tan Lin, Tyrone Williams, Edwin Torres, and Juliana Spahr. In 2016, with Jane Gregory and Claire-Marie Stancek, Hejinian began coediting Nion editions which has included books by Jean Day, Lisa Robertson and sabrina soyer, Ed Roberson, Mia You, and Roberto Harrison. 

Hejinian’s other collaborations include Individuals, with Kit Robinson (Chax, 1988), Chartings, with Ray di Palma (Chax, 2000), and The Wide Road, with Carla Harryman (Belladonna, 2010). Hejinian collaborated with Jack Collom on Wicker: A Poem (Rodent Press, 1996), Sunflower (The Figures, 2000), On Laughter: A Melodrama (Baksun, 2003), and Situations, Sings (Adventures in Poetry, 2008); with Leslie Scalapino she published Sight (Edge, 1999) and Hearing (Litmus, 2021); with Emilie Clark, Hejinian published The Traveler and the Hill and the Hill (Granary, 1998) and The Lake (2004).

In 1990 Hejinian joined the core faculty of the graduate program in poetics at the New College of California, where she taught until 1998. During this time she was also for one semester a visiting professor (the Holloway Poet) at University of California, Berkeley, where she was hired full time in 2001 and taught until 2020. At Berkeley, Hejinian was active widely beyond the domain of creative writing, participating in many PhD dissertations, reading groups, and political actions. She was a founding member of the UC Berkeley Solidarity Alliance, which sought to protest the effects of university privatization. Hejinian was also on the board of Poets in Need, an organization founded in 2000 by Philip Whalen to help support poets who find themselves in precarious economic situations.

The phonebook-sized list of interlocutors that populate even this abbreviated version of Hejinian’s biography should give one a sense of the character of her continuous social and intellectual engagement. A number of Hejinian’s works are forthcoming, including The Proposition: Uncollected Early Poems 1963–1983 (Edinburgh University Press) and Fall Creek (Litmus).

In addition to her husband, Larry Ochs, Hejinian is survived by her two children, Paull and Anna, and her four grandchildren, Marka, Amity, Diego and Finn.