An interview with Lyn Hejinian by Craig Dworkin, originally
published in Idiom #3 (Berkeley: 1995).
CD: I wanted to start out with a little history. Over the last decade
or so there have been especially fruitful interactions between a certain
Russian and American avant-garde; I'm thinking of a book like Leningrad,
and of poets like Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, Ilya Kutik, and Alexei Parshchikov.
But to look back at the Russian avant-garde from the beginning of this
century, their key terms - ostranenia [making strange], sdvig [shift],
zaum [beyondsense], zvukopis [visual noise], faktura [materiality] -
are all words which could be used to describe our own fin-de-siècle
American avant- garde. What was the influence from that earlier Russian
LH: It was very big. When I first started corresponding with Ron Silliman
and Barrett Watten in the early 70's, Ron sent me David Melnick's Pcoet
and in the accompanying letter mentioned Velimir Khlebnikov. That was
the first I'd heard of Khlebnikov, but Ron was writing in a way that
assumed I understood, and so I had to find out. Likewise, Barrett was
talking about Viktor Shklovsky and the Russian Formalists very early
on. By that time several of Shklovsky's books had been translated, and
Victor Erlich's big book called Russian Formalism had been published,
which we all read and talked about and which had an enormous impact.
Erlich's book is still, I think, the most thorough and provocative of
the many works about the Russian Formalist movement, but Shklovsky had
the direct influence on our sense of literary style and strategies.
Barrett's early work Plasma/Paralleles/"X" was very much influenced
CD: Do Ron and Barrett know Russian?
LH: Barrett knows a little . And Ron knew a few nouns when we went to
Russia; he had a teach-yourself Russian book with stickers, and he had
stuck them on appropriate things: "kniga" on a book, "stakan"
on a drinking glass, and so on. It was a sweet manifestation of Ron's
relationship to words and contexts.
CD: Do you know Jameson's critique of the formalists in The Prison
House of Language?
LH: I think it's a really valuable critique, but, ironically, it seems
inadequately contextualized. That is, I don't think Jameson has a Russian
experience of Russian Formalism, so that even while Jameson is critiquing
Formalist theory for being too much of its moment and too little aware
of that, he himself is perhaps too much of his own time and place. I'm
a little nervous about coming off as too much of a cultural relativist,
but while our radical western Marxist ethics are extremely important
in the west, they can become displaced (by definition) when one tries
to apply them in any other situation; anti-capitalist Marxism, when
projected onto the Soviet situation, for example, can go radically askew
in ways that are often very unpredictable, and a lot of misinterpretation
occurs. But it's been a long time since I've read Jameson's book, and
I read it before I ever spent time in Russia. Perhaps, in the new post-Soviet
context, his critique would seem pertinent in new ways, Russian Formalism
(like "Language Writing") was a Utopian undertaking, but,
as Jameson points out, a powerful Negativity is fundamental to its theory,
since it assumes that paradox and revolution are characteristic of literary
CD: Do you have plans to go back, now that the republics have re- organized?
LH: They haven't reorganized adequately! No - the last time I was there
was in 1991 and it was depressing. And dangerous. I was going to go
for a project that Arkadii was organizing; I work off and on for a private
detective, and Arkadii had contacts with a television production studio
that wanted to do an hour long documentary on this western private detective;
the detective was interested, just to go to Russia, and even in the
very first discussion with the producers, we were being guaranteed round-the-clock
protection by armed guards. I don't want to go to a place like that.
Not only because I'm a coward, but because it's depressing. The Russian
mafia (or mafias) are really ugly. There's nothing there at the moment
that's sufficiently enchanting to draw me back. Most of my Russian friends
have left Russia, and the one who is most important, Arkadii Dragomoshchenko,
one way or another comes to the U. S. now every year.
CD: Can you e-mail your friends there, despite the local upheavals?
LH: I can e-mail Arkadii. He was working for an American business for
a while; I never understood what he was doing, but they gave him e-mail.
He's quit that job now, but he's kept the e-mail. That's why I first
got e- mail, actually, to be able to communicate with him. And he's
still the main person I send messages to.
CD: Speaking of Russian (or speaking in Russian), the title of your
book Oxota gets translated as "The Hunt" - the Zasterle
Press selections were entitled The Hunt and the selections translated
into French came out under the title Le Jour de Chasse - but
"oxota" also means "desire" in Russian. I was wondering
what your thoughts were on the relation of desire both to writing, which
some of your work has explored, and also to reading.
LH: The second part of that question is actually the more interesting
one, because it's one that people don't usually ask. I think a lot has
been written or said about the relation of desire to language itself:
the way eros and the quest for knowledge are interwoven in the psyche,
and the way language plays a role, therefore, in the quest for knowledge,
since it always pretends to be the vehicle both for gaining knowledge
and for passing it on. That's especially true in western models, where
so much of modern linguistics emerged in the wake of scientific writing
in the 17th century. The quest for knowledge has always been connected
with a language project of some kind or other. Writing is also linked
to the desire to tell, which seems to be a real primordial impulse;
we're like little kids: "I want to be the one to tell."
That, I think is probably an attempt to make the epistemological project
an unmediated one, where a word really could be the thing, where one
could leap the gap between sign and signifier, in Saussurean terms,
say. And since one can't leap that gap, since we absolutely know that
in fact we are always dealing with mediation in language, desire is
never effaced; there's no ultimate satisfaction. So writing is always
full of desire; it is completely cathected in complex ways: around power,
around sex, around possession, around wanting certainties, around flirtations
with uncertainties, with unknowing, approaching death and pulling back.
All of those metaphysical and theoretical aporias are part of the desire
So now, to consider the question about reading. There have to be similarities
between the relation of desire to writing and its relation to reading,
Reading too can have the features of a quest - certainly it is a reaching
out into the world, in order to see what someone else has seen or said,
or to learn something. Curiously - paradoxically? - the reading experience
seems more interior, even though it begins in the world, than writing,
though writing begins - or seems to begin - within. But maybe that's
wrong - maybe writing begins not in the self but in language, which
is far larger than the self, and prior to it. So writing, like reading,
begins at a point which is "not-I." Reading and writing both
have their origins in the largeness or plenitude of desire. And writing
expresses it, while reading interiorizes it.
I don't want to make too much of the distinction between the two modes,
however. The writer, after all, is immediately the reader of what's
just been written. There's a kind of exchange going on here that seems
important to think about. I've just been re-reading Walter Benjamin's
little essay called "The Storyteller" in Illuminations,
about the Russian writer Nikolai Leskov. In that essay Benjamin talks
about the decline of the storyteller, which is a decline of community
experience, of "exchanging experience" as he calls it. Benjamin
says that with the invention of the printing-press the storyteller becomes
isolated, and story telling moves into the area of the novel, the genre
at the point of greatest isolation. I think he is right. I also think
that poetry may be very close to storytelling, in that it offers readers
the opportunity to participate - first and especially because poetry
tends to encourage readers to subvocalize the text (enunciate it to
themselves - sound it out), but second because poetry generally doesn't
over-explain itself. Even conventional poetic devices can be read as
an attempt to represent something raw, something unmediated.
Of course, different kinds of reading of different kinds of material
provoke different kinds of desire, and maybe some have no desire in
them at all. Those works would be predicated on closure. In "The
Storyteller," Benjamin considers a comment (I don't remember the
source of the comment) that a person who dies at the age of thirty-five
is always a person who died at the age of thirty-five and Benjamin adds
that nonetheless that person is never someone who will die at the age
of thirty-five except in novels. Novels commence at closure - they
are written in the past tense, after the death of the characters and
after the completion of the events. Death in the novel results in isolation
- in the isolation of the novel reader. Benjamin's comment is that people
read novels in order to warm their frozen lives with the warmth of another's
death. I would speculate that death in poetry takes the form of absence
rather than isolation, providing rather than cutting off the space into
which desire can turn its longings.
CD: You mentioned the printing press, and Benjamin of course talks about
how technology has affected the arts. There are arguments that the stylistics
of the avant-garde of the last twenty years or so have been influenced
by electronic and digital media. But I'm not sure that I see such a
great formal difference between that writing and an earlier avant-garde,
such as the works collected for Bob Brown's "reading machine"
in the late '20's, which came about, perhaps, because of the invention
of the typewriter and film. Do you think we're yet seeing the affects
of digital media and the computer on contemporary writing?
LH: I think I see a powerful effect on its social contexts. A great
deal of literary activity is taking place on e-mail now - lively and
troubling examples being the "poetics list" originating in
Buffalo or the "description of an imaginary university" coming
out of SUNY-Albany. E-mail is a strikingly male-dominated medium at
the moment - it's founding "community" on male-dominated gossip.
CD: M-a-l-e, not m-a-i-l?
LH: M-a-l-e, yes. The problem isn't so much aesthetic as social. E-mail
produces a peculiar kind of community - one which is markedly aggressive,
given to gossip and bullying. There's an amazing vocabulary for modes
of being "present" in this community - people who are readers
but not writers on the e-mail poetics list, for example, are being called
"lurkers" or sometimes "muffins."
And there are terms for some of the forms of aggression, such as "bombing"
CD: Which are?
LH: I might have the terms reversed, but I think "bombing"
is where a perfectly well socialized, nice person gets behind his or
her computer on the e-mail and starts viciously attacking other people.
Presumably this comes about because the e-mail doesn't have social mediations.
CD: Or because there is too much mediation: that they're not face-to-
LH: That too. But in any case the boundary between private thought and
public thought, or between spoken and unspoken are blurred. So that's
"bombing," and "flaring," if I have the terms right,
is when you send a message to somebody which is actually very good,
and you just can't resist having everyone see how clever you've been
or what a good idea you've had, so you send the message so that everybody
gets it whether they need it or not; it's like showing off.
CD: These sound like things Marinetti would have loved: electronic "bombing,"
"flaring" - the boys showing off.
LH: Exactly. It's not the perfect social context for poetry.
In looking over the list of questions you gave me in preparation for
this interview, I was thinking about the influence of other arts on
contemporary writing; I agree with you that the other arts have influenced
contemporary writing, but I also think that those qualities in the other
arts that are influencing contemporary writing and being influenced
by it are coming out of an attention to the culture at large -
especially the media: film, television, and advertising. This exchange
of influence is affecting pacing, narrative strategies, post-modern
juxtapositions, use of the simulacral, play with commodification and
anti-commodification, obfuscation as eros, etc. Most of the writers
I'm interested in are paying attention to the media; they're interested
in the kinds of sentimentalization that is going on in media, the replacement
of narration by over-interpreted information or disinformation, with
disinformation as the narration of our times.
CD: Bob Brown, whom I mentioned earlier, says that his avant-garde poetics
derived from reading Stephen Crane's Black Riders and Other Lines,
Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons, commercial ticker-tape, and
the electronic advertisements on the billboard skyline which had emerged
in New York City in the twenties.
LH: That makes complete sense.
CD: To go from technology back to science - you mentioned the connexion
between scientific and linguistic theories - I'm curious about the connexion
I sense in some of your work between the terms "myopia" 'hypochondria,"
LH: I'd have to think a while about "hypochondria," but I
think I've used that as a metonym for a sense of the dysfunctionality,
or the unworkability, of the self in its previous, romantic incarnations
and manifestations. I've also used it as a metonym for anxiety in general
in order to suggest something of the way it is literally embodied. Anxiety
is experienced as an interior condition, but it is a form of fixation
- a form of bondage; like hypochondria, it is a psychic condition with
physical implication. Otherwise I don't particularly suffer from hypochondria.
Meanwhile, because our models of perception are geared towards vision
and sight, "myopia" is a handy metaphor for uncertainties
vis- à-vis perception, an awareness that what you perceive may
not be what's there - that distortions are intrinsic to perception.
I am myopic.
The notion of "myopia" is linked to perception and replicability;
western science bases its definitions of knowledge on certainties, and
certainty requires that something be perceivable repeatedly. This is
interesting in terms of Stein's argument that there is no repetition,
which would have to mean there is no certainty, while at the same time
she considered herself a realist writer and, like me, she was very enamored
of the scientific method: requiring patience, careful observation, an
attempt not to over-interpret, to let the thing be itself.
CD: Description would be another term from that lexicon; I like the
idea of Steinian scientists "insisting" on experiments (to
use another of her terms) rather than "repeating" experiments.
I read that your "Two Stein Talks" are going to be republished;
are there going to be significant revisions? Have you changed your thoughts
LH: No, I've changed almost nothing. That particular re-publication
is to be one of those really expensive fine art editions from Weaslesleeves
Press, but I do want to re-publish them in a version that's available
to more people. There are a few more essays I want to write, and then
I would like to put out a volume of collected essays, including the
CD: To bring that question of availability back to Stein herself, why
do you think she is at the same time one of the few poets who is really
a household name and also almost entirely excluded from the canon of
anthologies and university curriculums.
LH: Well, remember she's a household name as a cultural figure and not
as a writer; the people who use her name, or think that they're summoning
something by using her name, generally haven't read her writing at all.
In fact, she's an emblem of things which are quite separate from her
writing. I think that one of the reasons Stein doesn't make it in the
academy is that there is no exemplary work, there's no work you can
read and thereby not have to read anything else; her work is irreducible
and unsynopsizable, because for every proposition that she makes, she
also makes counter-propositions; her whole project is an enormous and
spreading study of the relationships of everything to everything else,
beginning with the Making of Americans, in which she categorizes
different kinds of people and then realizes that oppositions don't work;
she abandons the Making of Americans when she sees that there
are co-existing ontological possibilities, that they're always vibrating
next to each other, and that there are vast numbers of them. That's
something that contemporary physicists can deal with, but contemporary
literary critics are driven crazy by that degree of plenitude and then
they blame Stein.
CD: What do you think of Stein's recent appropriation by feminist critics
who take her as an exemplary anti-patriarchal figure? My reservation
is that Stein seems like the ultimate patriarch: her relationship to
Alice, her apodictic pronouncements, her Caesarian third person, the
fascist project of describing and categorizing every type of person.
How do you see that Stein co-existing with the Stein who demolished
LH: I think that the use of Stein by contemporary feminists may not
be accurate about Stein, but that it may still be useful. Otherwise,
I would disagree with the use of your word "fascist." "Authoritarian,"
maybe, but not "fascist," just to be accurate; it's more bourgeois.
Well, but then so is fascism. . . .
CD: It was an intentionally provocative choice of words.
LH: I really don't think her work is fascist, but I agree with you that
it's patriarchal, and I think maybe the weakness that you're seeing
in the feminist re-making of Stein is in the inadequacy of the definition
of "the feminine." To include Stein's patriarchal poetics
within the realm of écriture feminine - and to give a
reading of Stein that will permit itself to turn around and be read
by Stein - would be of great value.
CD: The academy has had difficulty dealing with experimental writers
like Stein, but of course Barrett Watten, your co-editor at Poetics
Journal, has joined the list of other experimentalists from your
generation who now hold teaching positions in the academy: Charles Bernstein,
Susan Howe, Bob Perelman, Michael Davidson - how do you see this migration
changing the course of writing?
LH: Well obviously I hope it has a good effect. When we started and
were taking up an oppositional literary position, we really knew what
we were opposing; it wasn't just oppositionalism for its own sake, it
really was an attack on the catastrophe resulting from the hypocritical
failure of western capitalism and American individualism to examine
. . . practically anything. The Language movement was actually a very
utopian project; it has been from the beginning, and from the very beginning
it included a utopian view of an academy - although admittedly as an
anti-academy: an enclave within an academy, or an academy outside The
CD: Something like Black Mountain started out as?
LH: Something like OPOYAZ; that was the inspiration. We even talked
about it: renting a building, starting a school. There was never anything
we said that took paedagogy to be contrary to poetry or to poetics.
On the contrary: we said that this writing is a kind of unfolding procedure
related to analytical thinking - which was, by the way, a way of acknowledging
the intense social importance of poetry. Poetry is an enormously social
activity, and not only because poets have to invent their communities
and sustain friendships with each other in order for poetry to get a
readership, but also because it already calls out for that, it really
is an ongoing making of a world through thought and exchange of thought.
So teaching is really appropriate.
CD: Given that understanding of poetry as a social activity and the
desire for an oppositional poetry which could operate in the political
realm, one of the chief obstacles seems to be that like the fine press
edition of the "Two Stein Talks," the poetry from this oppositional
avant-garde was being published in extremely limited editions: three-hundred
and five- hundred copies. How do you see the oppositional effectiveness
of a writing which has a necessarily small audience?
LH: It had such a good audience. It's clearly had efficacy; it's had
readers, followers, imitators. And also it's freaked people out, it's
made enemies. Apparently The New York Times just had an article
in the Sunday magazine on American poetry and names Language Poetry
as absolutely incomprehensible and vicious.
CD: That confirms all kinds of things I've always thought about The
New York Times.
LH: With the Tuumba Press books, I think the most I ever printed was
five- hundred copies, but certainly more than five-hundred people read
them. And presses play all kinds of roles - certainly the Tuumba edition
of a work was not the final publication, it was a way of getting news
out. And Tuumba press published the first books of lots of people.
CD: Cost, though, is another problem of accessibility for our contemporary
avant-garde. Johanna Drucker's books, for instance, are fascinating
and brilliant and absolutely beautiful, but they're also well out of
most people's price range.
LH: Yeah, part of the things I liked about Tuumba Press was that it
was letterpress on beautiful paper - and then roughly stapled. And they
only cost a couple of dollars.
CD: Those bibliographic details can tell quite a bit. On the one hand,
there's a poetry characterized in part by certain "postmodern"
theories of the self, a poetry being written as if to illustrate the
much-hailed "death of the author," and then on the other hand
there's the increasing size of author photos in books from The Figures,
and the fact that the biographical blurbs in the back of Sun & Moon
books have been steadily increasing. How do you account for that discrepancy?
LH: Unprincipled careerism. The marketing of books. It's something I've
never really thought about. Somehow the picture on the book didn't seem
to be anymore me than the pronoun "I" - but I see your point,
it's a very good question. Those blurbs on the Sun & Moon books
are by Douglas Messerli; the writers don't have any control over that.
CD: As the same writers and same works which Tuumba announced start
to be picked up and re-printed by larger small-presses, like Sun &
Moon, or by anthologies like the new Norton Postmodern, what at one
point might have been described as a coterie poetry has the chance to
reach a larger audience - how do you see that change?
LH: I think it's problematic. It's a problem for us. You've used the
phrase "the coffins of poetry" before to describe the Norton
Anthologies, but I've been thinking of it more as a brick in the mausoleum.
Or, more troubling, a brick in a monument. Both the big Messerli anthology
and the Norton have the overt ambition to define and historicize a lot
of activity, and they're going to do that. They are going to be, for
a long time now, the avenue through which people come to understand
and be exposed to this work. That may be good for your generation: there
it is, that's history, now we can get on with what we're doing. But
for me, the big challenge is to remember that this story is not adequate,
that it's not the whole story, that these books don't feel like what
it really was - they don't really show it.
And the big question: what's next? That's what I've been talking about
with everybody - Barrett Watten, Bob Perelman, Carla Harryman,
Michael Davidson, Kit Robinson, Ron Silliman, Rae Armantrout, Charles
Bernstein - what's next? Obviously, there are writers of my generation
who are repeating themselves, but others are looking ahead, pushing
invention and cogency into an expanding notion of poetry. I think immediately
of Carla Harryman, whose work constantly reaches new dimensions of wit
CD: So you see this process of definition as ultimately helping not
just writers of my generation, but also having the potential to liberate
the writers in those anthologies: spurring them to move on and "make
LH: Yes. Although it did depress me when those two books came out. I
mean, I am happy to be in them, and I appreciate their usefulness, but
the limits they set have the potential to be depressing.
CD: Right, my first thought was: "good god, it's over."
LH: But it's not. The challenge now is to make certain that it is not