‘A Fable for Now’: Kate Fagan Interviews Lyn Hejinian

By and | 1 November 2017

KF: There’s immense pressure around the resistant list, and how a list can be a list without being a category. Your works unfold a lot of space and time as things that happen simultaneously and are inseparable from form itself.

I want to stay a little with The Book of a Thousand Eyes. As you say, a formal imperative is being worked out within it. But that is not foregrounded in a certain way, and it strikes me that this brings a freedom of music. You have pieces in here that are three-page prose poems, for want of another word. Then there will be a short list or a one liner about the ‘password’. It’s such a … I’m not going to call its range virtuosic, because we’ve wonderfully problematised that word in the past seven days. This is anti-virtuosic writing in many ways. It’s capacious; it has a force of inquiry. So my question is not about your troping of One Thousand and One Nights, but more about dreams: how did your notion of ‘the dream’ allow for this book’s form, or demand or suggest its form?

LH: I think I attempted to turn away from what I had set myself as a sort of project terrain: the feel of intention which was phenomenological and epistemological – like, how do you know? What do you sacrifice or lose in the quest for knowledge? I’ve said how much I appreciate the situating of creative writing here [in Australia] in the field of intellectual rigour, which means in the field of conscious thought. Like you’re going to be conscious, which is a laudable thing. I’m in favour of being conscious, and being conscious that you’re conscious. Or as I’ve said more than once: experiencing experience.

There are arguments that say one of the roles of art is to make the world experience-able again, to make the familiar unfamiliar, so you experience it freshly as a child would. So, having gone on and on about this, I thought well, what about the unconscious world? What does it know that I don’t? And how would one approach it without sentimentality? And so the dream-world seemed like very interesting terrain to get into. And other kinds of nocturnal states; not just dreams when you’re really asleep, but all kinds of useless thinking that goes on when one’s having insomnia, worried, jealous, envious, hallucinating, stoned – all of those altered consciousness kinds of things. That was the other interpretative field of exploration.

KF: It occurred to me listening that this [mode of writing] refamiliarises the entirely strange, which is a corollary project: re-estranging us, reminding us how we’re not habituated into the way we perceive the world. But it also allows peripheral thought, or thinking on the peripheries. It’s exciting and challenging to me, because it restores the idea of ‘dream’ out of the bind of the 20th century psychoanalytic idea of what the dream object might be.

LH: And out of surrealism, which was so harshly misogynist. The surreal male in his spontaneous fantasies was always thinking about female vaginas or arses – which is fine, they’re good things – but it seems like the ‘dream world’ could also go other places. It’s helpful to have Scheherazade on my team.

KF: Team Scheherazade! But this idea of ‘the dream making the work happen’ in some sense … already the status of everything in a dream is sort of up for grabs, and that is a vast place from which to begin. But it’s no more vast than a planet that we have to care for, about and within, and acknowledge. It’s no vaster than the peripheries of thought, and these are very real things. This is a book that performs its endless scope without ever feeling magisterial. How long did it take you to write and what were some of the processes of return and leave?

LH: Well I’ll be honest and say it took 20 years to write, but I wasn’t working on it all the time. There were a number of projects that it spawned. There’s a book which is one of my favourites of my own books – and I tend not to like my books at all – A Border Comedy, which is a whole other area to talk about. But I wanted … one of the things that can take you to the realm of something deeply unconscious is what you’ve totally forgotten, like it’s really lost. It’s not just that it’s unconscious. It feels, and is in all practical senses, gone. It’s lost. So how could I get there?

I was doing, and have been for years now, a series of collaborations which in many senses are just acts of friendship with a poet named Jack Collom, who is very unlike me aesthetically. Jack lives in Colorado. We met at a conference-like thing and he said, ‘while we’re sitting here, let’s do a collaboration’. So we did the simplest one of trading lines: I write a line, he writes a line, etcetera. And now we’ve got zillions of projects. We have eleven going at the one time, and they’re all done through the real mail. So there’s a nice big gap of time before you have to add the next one.

But in any case, the trading lines thing: I write a line and it breaks off for the next person to continue, and Writer A can’t control what Writer B is going to do, so the whole thing gets ruined. Writer B adds what Writer B adds, and now your wonderful intention when you were Writer A is all screwed up, and you’ve got to do something with B that you don’t even know what it is. I wanted to get to that place where you lost knowledge and consciousness of what was going on. So I thought, ok, this activity will be a good addition for this book. But I couldn’t forget. Border Comedy has ended up being a full book and it’s in fifteen books, or parts, in homage to Ovid’s Metamorphosis. My rule was that I could only add two lines to any one book in a sitting, and then I had to go through all the other books, all fifteen. By the time I got back to the first book I had no idea what I was writing. So I was able to forget all by myself. Try forgetting – everyone here just try forgetting what elephants look like, ok?

So that was a whole book and I was completely engulfed in that. Then I decided this was awful and put it away. I thought, ‘it’s a fail, maybe I’ll recover something from it’. Then I got excited about it again, and got the job at Berkeley, and wrote a book called The Fatalist. It’s built in such a way that it was writing itself in a weird way. So it was like going away and returning, and going away and returning.

I did keep making lists of things that were nocturnal like lullabies, perseverations, those fairy tales with the morals, and which are often tripartite in structure. Not to start talking about form, but there’s the opening situation, the middle narrative where everything happens, and then the outcome. And I thought, there’s a wonderful syllogistic illogic if you just have a beginning and then a middle. There’s nothing to say that middle wouldn’t evolve from that beginning. And I decided to make the conclusions really dark. So there’s a kind of self-undercutting that goes on.

KF: This brings me back to The Book of a Thousand Eyes. But it does point back to your recent discussion of allegory, and how you foreshadowed this in Sydney [at ‘Experimental’] by saying that you’d treasured a secret fancy for allegory as a form with potential, even while suspecting that fancy at the same time, suspecting perhaps the historical import or the morality of allegory. Why the return to allegory now? Or the fable, or skewed morality tale? Which is completely not about instruction, and not about the possibility of terminus – where is allegory in this work?

LH: I became bewildered by what Walter Benjamin means when he uses the term ‘allegorical’ or ‘allegory’, and especially ‘an allegory’. It seems, in some senses, that Benjamin sees the allegorical as that bit of material culture – whether it’s actually a thing or an idea – as something that remains after everything else has been lost. So it’s been decontexualised. And then the allegorical element in it, or the allegorical possibility of it, is to recontextualise it, repurpose it, re-mean it. And that seems extremely open-ended; a philosophical concept about an open-ended relation to things, whether they’re objects, ideas, or events. Then I became decreasingly interested in the thing world, the object world, and increasingly interested in some notion of event.

At one point, in some essay [‘Reason’], I wrote that the function of art is to say that ‘this is happening’. This is related to ‘the experience’ but announces it slightly differently, as a moment rather than a thing. An event, rather than an occasion or a context. I like that, because things tend to have more literal solidity and stability than an event. Like this interview is going to end, and it will never happen again, but it is really happening now for better or for worse! And that interests me, especially because I’m interested in memory and again, how open-ended and repurposed that can become.

KF: How I wonder does ‘event’ relate to a sense of ‘repertoire’? Because there’s a repertoire of events that come around and around and around, and this is something that comes through The Book of a Thousand Eyes. I felt there was a lovely resonance from The Book of a Thousand Eyes to Saga / Circus, where you’re seeing what you describe as ‘the three rings’ of a circus all happening simultaneously. Repertoire is something that hasn’t always been discussed in terms of poetry. It sort of gets sequestered into musical terminology. It strikes me that the many chapter returns in Saga / Circus are spatio-temporally radical, in terms of music and repertoire. It’s not just three events occurring simultaneously: it’s the return of an event again and again and again.

LH: Or a return to an event again and again.

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