Introducing Small Press Distribution

An Interview with Lyn Hejinian

Lyn Hejinian is a poet, essayist, and translator; and one of the writers supported by SPD’s presence on Abebooks.com

Born in the San Francisco Bay Area and now resident in Berkeley, Lyn’s published work include Writing is An Aid to Memory, My Life, Oxota: A Short Russian Novel, Leningrad, The Cell,The Cold of Poetry, and A Border Comedy.

She is the recipient of a Writing Fellowship from the California Arts Council, a grant from the Poetry Fund, and a Translation Fellowship (for her Russian translations) from the National Endowment for the Arts. Lyn was awarded an Award for Independent Literature by the Soviet literary organization “Poetics Function” in Leningrad in 1989. She teaches at the University of California, Berkeley.

Do you think poetry gets the attention it deserves in North America?

“It is often said, and no doubt true, that a relatively small percentage of the North American population reads poetry. I suspect that a large segment of the population would scoff at the idea of doing so. In part, this is a result of misguided (and generalized sentimentalized and trivialized) preconceptions regarding what poems are, or even what poems there are. And in part, too, it is a result of the strange societal velocity characteristic of contemporary life. Generally, poetry is inefficient - which is only to say that contemporary audiences are impatient.

“So, in one sense, I would answer your question with a 'No': much poetry requires that readers take considerable time before turning the page, and most readers refuse to do this. On the other hand, what poetry's audience lacks in quantity it most certainly has in quality - those who care about poetry do so with enormous intensity, even fervor. And in this (limited) sense, I can answer the question with a 'Yes.' But only in this limited sense. Given that language is a fundamental, even possibly defining, human phenomenon, I find it regrettable that poetry, as the genre of art that is created most consciously in language, is not more and better read.”

What interest in poetry do you see from young people?

“Based on my experience, I would guess that young people generally are far more interested in writing poetry than in reading it. The two undertakings are quite separate for most of them - I’m thinking here of student-aged “young people,” and in particular of the undergraduate students I come in contact with at UC-Berkeley, where I teach.

“They seem to regard the poetry they are asked to read as external to them, even when they like it; the poetry they write, on the other hand, even for a class and even when in response to an assignment, they seem to regard as coming from within. This distinction between the objective status of what’s being read and the subjective status of what’s being written, though it seems natural enough, is, I think a cultural - or inculcated - one, and I think it reflects troubling and deeply-held assumptions about the primacy and greater authenticity of “private” over “public” or social and shared experience.

“In any case, poetry as a self-expressive medium is of enormous interest to the young people I encounter. They read it some and write it a lot. Most will lose interest in poetry within a few years of graduation, though they will look back on their experiences of it fondly. I don’t see the educational system as “building audiences” for poetry. On the other hand, I do see the reading and writing of poetry as a fundamental contribution to developing in young people the art of thinking.”

What sparked your interest in Russia, and its poets, writers?

“The story of my involvement with Russian writing has several points of departure. The first is in the works of Tolstoi, Anna Karenina and War and Peace at first and then his other writings. I read the two novels when I was an adolescent, and gleaned from them something about a cultural ethos - a sense of the vastness of the currents underlying the way of things - and something about a social ethics - the complexities and imbrications involved in longing for a better world.

“At around the same time, I naively declared myself a communist - a gesture which was partially thoughtful (I deemed sharing preferable to hoarding) and partially rebellious (we were in the depths of the Cold War and in the lingering murk of the McCarthy era). A decade or so later, thanks largely to the influence of Barrett Watten and Ron Silliman, I “discovered” the Russian Formalists, whose writings enormously influenced my own, both at a strategic and at a theoretical level. Then, in 1983, I accompanied Rova Saxophone Quartet on their first concert tour in the Soviet Union - and there experienced a cataclysmic and enormously productive though still to me not entirely comprehensible addition to my intellectual and emotional perspective.”

Poetry, essay writing or translation – which one is the most rewarding for you?

“The version of a literary life that I would find most rewarding would involve all three of these activities. They are equally, though very differently, rewarding. And they are equally, though differently, demanding.

“Translating requires a suspension of one set of commitments and commitment to another - to another set of commitments and to another person’s sensibility. It’s microscopic work - a looking at, rather than in, though, curiously, the effect is a sense of intimacy, even of secret knowledge.

“That sense of acquiring secret knowledge may be one of the rewards of translation; the other is the giving of a work one finds astonishing to others who can’t read it in its original language.

In essays, I can work out ideas, trace their interconnections, speculate on their future. Poetry takes advantage of that, doing similar work but at much greater velocity. The speed at which change occurs and connections get made in poetry is a fundamental feature of it, especially as the speed must be generated and then perceived very slowly. The insanity of that is its own reward.”

What aspects of everyday life in the Bay Area inspire your poetry?

“The constant flow of conversation with other poets, and the ready access to new and recent publications, which Small Press Distribution makes available.”

Looking back on over 30 years of writing, which piece of work are you most proud of?

“I’m not sure that pride is a factor in my assessment of my work, but I suppose my favorite is A Border Comedy.”

What American poets have influenced you?

“My list of influences would be very long, as would be my account of what it was in each case that was influential. To be brief about it, however, I’ll simply cite some names: Gertrude Stein, Robert Creeley, George Oppen, Leslie Scalapino, Barrett Watten, William Carlos Williams, Bernadette Mayer, Clark Coolidge, Larry Eigner, Ron Silliman, John Ashbery, Carla Harryman, Louis Zukofsky, Wallace Stevens, Nathaniel Mackey, and ….”